McCoy signs county’s Clean Air Act into law

An earlier environmental coalition: Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy is shown signing an earlier bill expanding the ban of styrofoam in restaurants. 

ALBANY COUNTY — After months of pushing by environmentalists, Albany County has a Clean Air Act.

On Thursday, the county’s executive, Daniel McCoy, signed the bill into law. It had been adopted by the county’s legislature, 32 to 7, in August.

The bill, which had been tabled for revisions in December, was spurred by concerns over two businesses in the county.

In the southern part of Albany County, in Coeymans, the LaFarge cement plant had proposed burning tires to fuel its kiln while, in the northern part of the county, Norlite, in Cohoes, had a contract with the United States Department of Defense, recently canceled, to burn fire-fighting foams, aqueous film-forming foam that contain PFAS which can cause health problems.

William Reinhardt, who chairs the legislature’s Conservation, Sustainability and Green Initiatives Committee and who sponsored the bill, told The Enterprise on Thursday that, although many of the citizen activists involved in testifying had focused on LaFarge and Norlite, “This bill was really meant to be about more than current concerns.”

Reinhardt described the Clean Air Act, rather, as “a prevention law.” He went on, “We need to move toward a circular economy with ‘reduce, re-use, and recycle.’”

In his career with the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, Reinhardt said, he became an advocate of re-manufacturing, and of minimizing waste from the start of the manufacturing process, from its very design.

“The focal issue for the legislature is we don’t want to become the dumping ground for New York State or for the Northeast,” said Reinhardt, a Democrat who lives in Slingerlands and represents District 33.

The Clean Air Act will prohibit waste-disposal facilities from burning or processing certain kinds of waste, including but not limited to garbage, hazardous materials, automobiles, and electronic waste. Violators can be fined up to $2,000 or imprisoned up to 10 days for the first offense. A second penalty would be considered a misdemeanor and carries a fine of $5,000 or up to 30 days in jail. The signed legislation goes into effect once filed with the Secretary of the State.

“While there may be opponents to this Law, it is important to note that the Clean Air Act received bipartisan support in the Legislature, and I applaud the Republican members for reaching across the aisle to do the right thing and vote in favor of this legislation,” McCoy, a Democrat, wrote in a Sept. 10 letter to Necole Chambers, the legislature’s clerk.

McCoy went on in his signing statement, “It is also important to note that, during the public comment period, nearly every person submitted testimony in favor of the Clean Air Act. I am aware of the naysayers, their criticism and arguments of illegality, but the truth is that, as of today, there is no federal or state law or judicial decision that prohibits the enactment of the Clean Air Act, and any reference to any such law or decision is simply misguided and misplaced.”


Environmental justice

Reinhardt believes that incineration of garbage is an environmental-justice issue.

The Norlite incinerator, for example, is next to a public-housing complex. Both the State Assembly and the Senate passed a bill this spring that would prohibit Norlite from burning the toxic firefighting foam. The bill would prohibit incineration of AFFF in a city with an environmental justice area designated by the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation and a population between 16,000 and 17,000 — a precise description of Cohoes. The vote was unanimous in both houses. Governor Andrew Cuomo has not signed the bill.

Reinhardt notes that, depending on the way the wind blows, residents besides just those living in Saratoga Sites, the public housing complex directly next to the Norlite incinerator, can be affected.

Facilities with “noxious implications,” he said, often end up in low-income urban areas or in rural communities. “That’s an issue we have to face,” he said.

The coronavirus pandemic, Reinhardt said, has shown higher mortality rates among people with pre-existing health conditions, including lung impairment. “COVID has brought to the forefront how dirty air or dirty water matter. People die from it,” sid Reinhardt.

During the hearings for the Clean Air Act, he said, some of the most moving testimony came from members of the Black community, speaking about the ANSWERS (Albany New York Solid Waste Energy Recovery System)  plant in Sheridan Hollow.

First a coal power plant and then a trash incinerator in the largely Black community, located in a ravine in Albany, polluted the soil and air with toxic ash, causing cancer and asthma among other maladies. 

“They spoke of how they lost friends or relatives who lived close to the ANSWERS plant,” said Reinhardt. “You could feel the personal impact.” 


Opting out?

McCoy, in his signing statement, urged county legislators to work with municipalities for consistent protective measures.

“While air pollution has no boundaries, the Clean Air Act is limited in terms of its geographic effectiveness,” McCoy wrote. “The New York State Environmental Conservation Law provides authority for towns, cities and villages to ‘opt out’ of this County Law by enacting their own legislation. As this ‘opt out’ provision is a concern for a county with 19 municipalities, I would ask the individual county legislators, as county leaders, to take an affirmative role in working with your legislative counterparts and the local municipalities in your legislative districts to seek collaborative mechanisms to limit the amount of local deviation from the protective measures in this Clean Air Act.

“I am confident that if we work together in this cohesive and holistic approach, we can find a real solution to this issue that ensures consistent regulations throughout the County that will not only protect the quality of air we breathe, but will also be a model for surrounding counties to adopt.”

“Even though we have passed a good bill, it does mean local communities can opt out,” said Reinhardt of the state law.

A municipality cannot opt out of a state-imposed regulation but state law gives the most local jurisdiction — say, a town rather than a county — the ultimate authority, Reinhardt explained.

Reinhardt said that the co-sponsors of the bill “felt it was important to show our concern and we hope it discourages local communities from opting out, to allow things like incinerators.”

He concluded, “Dirty air doesn’t know political boundaries.”

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