The government of the people means us. Let’s get at it.

When government regulatory agencies are not doing their jobs to protect the public, the actions of citizens become more important.

We were inspired by a citizen activist, Judith Enck, whom we talked to for last week’s Enterprise podcast.

Under the Obama administration, Enck had been our regional director for the federal Environmental Protection Agency and she is now concerned that the Trump administration has either rolled back or delayed one-hundred major federal environmental regulations. At the end of the Trump presidency, rebuilding the EPA, Enck said, will be like putting Humpty Dumpty back together again.

In the meantime, action can be taken at the county and state levels.

We can get behind a clean-air bill being considered by the county legislature; it was tabled for revisions in December. In the southern part of Albany County, in Coeymans, the LaFarge cement plant wants to burn tires to fuel its kiln. Used tires should be shredded and recycled, not burned to pollute the air.

In the northern part of the county, Norlite, in Cohoes, has a  contract with the United States Department of Defense to burn fire-fighting foams, aqueous film-forming foam, known as AFF. The foam contains PFAS — per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, in this case, perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl — which can cause health problems.

Other countries, like Australia, have stopped using firefighting foams with PFAS and switched to using more environmentally friendly products, reserving use for situations where human life is at risk.

PFAS can accumulate and stay in the human body for long periods of time, according to the EPA, and there is evidence that exposure to PFAS can lead to adverse health outcomes in humans, including low infant birth weights, effects on the immune system, cancer, and thyroid hormone disruption.

No matter what part of the county we live in, and well beyond the county’s border — air currents don’t follow political maps — we’re all susceptible to the ill effects of polluted air.

How do we tackle these issues when in both instances the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation wasn’t doing its job, Enk asks. “When we blew the whistle in February,” said Enck about the toxic foam being burned at Norlite, the DEC said it would work with Norlite to develop and test a burn protocol.

“You’re supposed to do that before you burn a new wastestream,” said Enck.

A legislative solution would protect us all.

Besides the county’s bill, the state legislature — both the Assembly and the Senate — has passed a bill that would prohibit Norlite from burning the toxic firefighting foam. The vote was unanimous in both houses.

While any of us might breathe the pollutants spewed by Norlite, those most impacted are the people who live nearby. The Norlite incinerator is next to a public-housing complex. The bill would prohibit incineration of AFFF in a city with an environmental justice area designated by the DEC and a population between 16,000 and 17,000 — a precise description of Cohoes.

An environmental justice area is a census block group where 20 percent or more people live in poverty, and/or 30 percent or more of the population is minority.

The bill is awaiting Governor Andrew Cuomo’s signature. We urge him to sign it, and you should urge him as well.

In the meantime, on June 23, a notice of intent to sue in federal court was filed on behalf of residents of Saratoga Sites, the public housing complex directly next to the Norlite incinerator.

The legal action is directed at Norlite, the Norlite parent company Tradabe, the United States Environmental Protection Agency, and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.

Although the federal Department of Defense recently cancelled its five-year contract with Norlite to burn the toxic foam, other private parties may want to send material there in the future.

Citizens who are frustrated by the lack of environmental protection should act. Keep urging on your county legislators, too.

As Enck notes, when individual municipalities pass laws — as Albany County did with a ban on single-use plastic bags — that often leads to state legislation.

“They don’t want the dreaded patchwork quilt of different laws and rules in different areas,” said Enck, “and so the nice thing about that is we all can access our city council or county legislator. You don’t have to go to Washington. You don’t have to hire a lobbyist.”

Pick an issue, find some allies, do your research, and, Enck urges, “Just go at it.”

We do not have to buy into the false dichotomy that a growing economy depends on trashing the environment.

Enck gives as an example the rollback of fuel-efficiency standards for cars that the Obama administration adopted. “So this means you and I will pay more at the pump for gas. We’ll also pay with lung disease with more air pollution,” she said.

Enck notes, too, that a number of companies that manufacture cars oppose rolling back fuel-efficiency standards.

An international pandemic is not a clean-air strategy, Enk says. But going forward, as we rebuild our economy, we have a chance to do it in a way that is healthier for the planet and the humans who live there.

As we’ve written here before, following the One Health philosophy, nations around the world need to base their economies on an understanding that nature is the foundation for development. That is the only way to prevent more deaths from animal-to-human diseases, like the coronavirus, and to deal with the climate crisis and the precipitous loss of species.

For Enk, societal changes are important, too. “It would be a terrible thing if we just return to business as usual,” she said.

In reimagining how the economy will work, Enck said, it’s imperative to tie it to the current drive for racial justice. She notes that the Norlite hazardous waste incinerator is right next to a public-housing complex for seventy families.

“There’s a lot of people who’ve been awakened,” said Enck, “and who are ready to jump in and work for change.”

Let’s get at it.

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