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Are you up for the challenge? Anne Reynolds.. Photo by Joe Putrock.

If the Feds Won’t Do It . . .

As environmental protections are rolled back, state groups look to take matters into their own hands

Though the Bush administration has continued to make corporate pollution and resource depletion more business-friendly, a collection of grassroots organizations statewide is asking New Yorkers to take environmental protections into their own hands.

During last month’s Cool New York: A Global Warming Summit, nearly 20 environmental and public-policy groups met in Albany to decide how to positively affect climate change. But it was an idea imported from Vermont called the 10 Percent Challenge that captured the attention of many. The challenge sets out to curb global warming by asking individuals and businesses to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases produced through everyday energy use.

“Some of the ways to participate involve behavior changes, and others are investments in more energy-efficient products,” said Anne Reynolds, air and energy project director with Environmental Advocates, which participated in the summit. “Driving less and keeping your tires inflated are two big ones for the cars. You can turn your thermostat down when you are not there. Recycling is a big part of it, because a significant percentage of the emissions from an individual’s activity is waste generation.”

The 10 Percent Challenge started in Vermont two years ago, when the City Council of Burlington adopted a plan to reduce its greenhouse-gas emissions by 2010. The resolution called for the city’s municipal buildings to reduce the amount of waste they produce and become more efficient with their energy consumption. It also called for the community to implement an energy plan relying on alternative fuel sources and to develop a program to educate the public on the effects of climate change.

“We’re working, slowly but steadily, on inching toward realizing those strategies,” said Deb Sachs, director for the Burlington-based Alliance for Climate Action. “Albany should check its closet and see who is going to help out in the transportation, energy-efficiency and solid-waste departments. Anybody who has anything to do with these has a vested interest in such a program.”

While summit participants have yet to formalize a New York version of the 10 Percent Challenge, Reynolds hopes that upcoming discussions regionally will give local groups the tools to work toward enacting the program at their local levels.

“We’re hoping individuals and institutions, as they often have irrational energy behaviors, across the state will do it,” said Reynolds. “We’re looking for local groups to do the legwork, to take the challenge to their school boards and legislators.”

Other summit attendees said localized efforts are needed to combat attacks on environmental protections from the agency charged to protect them: the Environmental Protection Agency.

“The federal government and the powers that be aren’t getting the job done,” said Patrick Clear, executive director of the Environmental Clearing House of Schenectady. “The whole hook of the event is that there needs to be more small community action, and that is just what 10 Percent Challenge is, a community-oriented program.”

Clear and others pointed to the EPA’s recent decision to weaken regulations of the 1970 Clean Air Act, essentially allowing older power plants to continue operation without being required to meet modern pollution standards, as examples of the current administration’s disregard for the environment. But Clear and the summit attendees are not alone in their disappointment with the federal government’s lack of environmental initiative.

New York state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer is one of nine attorneys general, mostly from the Northeast, set to file a lawsuit against the EPA for what his spokesman characterized as the Bush administration’s “gutting the Clean Air Act.” The attorneys general are looking for a federal judge to decide whether the administration’s recent decisions stand in opposition to the initial intent of the 1970 Clean Air Act.

“We believe that what the Bush administration has announced is illegal,” said Spitzer spokesman Marc Violette. “In short, it allows plants to emit more pollution, not less, and that is a violation of congressional intent. We believe the president and his administration are missing the boat. You look to the U.S. to be the leader, but we are the caboose on this train with our brakes on.”

Violette said that local implementation of a program such as the 10 Percent Challenge “works hand in glove” with the efforts of the attorneys general. Reynolds said the global-warming summit rejuvenated the efforts of her group and others to make a difference on the issue locally.

“We have a ways to go,” said Reynolds. “But we were very much encouraged by the enthusiasm at the summit. [The 10 Percent Challenge] is such a great idea.”

—Travis Durfee

Some Cranberry Sauce With Your Cement Plant?

Critics charge that St. Lawrence Cement offered Hudson a deal on Thanksgiving Eve to avoid public scrutiny—and that the proposal is a real turkey

The night before Thanksgiving, St. Lawrence Cement offered the city of Hudson a $4 million deal if the city government agreed to give up its standing in an upcoming state review of the company’s proposed coal-fired plant and its potential impact on the local environment. While Mayor Richard Scalera touted the proposal as a windfall for the city, some residents accused St. Lawrence and Hudson officials of collaborating to hide a bad deal behind the upcoming holiday.

“There was really no notice on this, and they tried to sneak it on us,” said Sam Pratt, executive director of the local activist group Friends of Hudson. “Normally, companies coming to town don’t have to bribe the town to let them in.”

For the last three years, St. Lawrence Cement has been negotiating to build a new and expanded factory in the town of Greenport, with conveyor belts and a barge that will operate in neighboring Hudson. The new plant would replace the company’s existing facility in Catskill. Its proposal faces fierce opposition from many residents and local activists who are concerned about air pollution from the plant’s stacks and question the company’s environmental record.

In the proposed “host agreement” with Hudson, St. Lawrence offered $200,000 a year for the duration of its 20-year contract to operate within the city. In exchange, the city would not be a party to state hearings on the plant. Mayor Scalera said the deal would not totally separate Hudson from the review process because the city’s Planning Commission would still be present to give its input and to keep tabs on what environmental impact the city can expect.

The deal was first proposed at the city’s legal committee meeting the evening before Thanksgiving. Pratt and other activists saw the timing of the meeting as strategic, because many people would be busy preparing for the holiday rather than paying attention to city politics.

“They’re putting it on the table in a way that there’s really very little time for the public to figure it out or be a part of the process,” said Linda Mussman, a member of Friends of Hudson, before the meeting. “Let’s have a real discussion instead of a handful of people.”

However, more than a handful showed up for the meeting—the proposal’s introduction drew an audience of roughly 100 people. Mayor Scalera argued that the Friends of Hudson made a fuss over a normally scheduled meeting.

“Most of the so-called Friends of Hudson . . . they’re always looking for some corruption,” Scalera said. “If they just take time and read the host agreement I think . . . the majority of people will be satisfied.”

Pratt claimed that St. Lawrence bused nearly 50 of its own employees and supporters to the meeting to take up most of the seats in the relatively small room, which left many critics forced to watch the discussion from outside in the hall, too far away to hear.

The deal outlined other details of operation between the city and company, should St. Lawrence get a permit to build the plant. Pratt also claimed that several of the agreement’s clauses could erode the city’s power to oversee the plant’s air emissions, and they could also create a loophole that could sap money from Hudson’s annual compensation.

“If any city agency requires anything of St. Lawrence that [the company] deems to be extra or beyond what the state would require,” said Pratt, “the cost of those changes get deducted from the annual payment made to the city for as many years as it takes to pay for it.”

For example, if the city created an ordinance banning the use of conveyor belts at night because they made too much noise, Pratt argued that St. Lawrence could write off the cost of not running the belts at the expense of the city’s payments.

Scalera looked at the noise-ordinance analogy differently.

“What we’d do in that particular instance is to allow it to go through a mediator, so to speak, a court of law . . . to see if it is indeed a detriment to their business,” Scalera said. “Before, they were grandfathered in. Now there’s a process.”

By giving up air monitoring, Scalera said the city is just avoiding redundancy, because Hudson can look at all of Greenport’s emissions reports. While St. Lawrence would have initially paid the bill, the city later would have had to pay for expensive air testing itself, Scalera said.

St. Lawrence did not return calls for comment on this story, but Scalera confirmed that these provisions are part of the proposal. Still, Scalera said the city is in a better position than it would have been if it had agreed to a previous proposal made by SLC last November. St. Lawrence offered the city roughly $1.5 million less, and the deal would have shielded the company from any laws the city passed after the contract was signed.

The host agreement was passed on for the consideration to Hudson’s Common Council—without the legal committee having actually read the agreement, according to Pratt. The council will decide whether to have a formal vote on the agreement on Dec. 17, according to Scalera.

—David Riley


Reading, writing and recruiting: John Amidon.Photo by Teri Currie.

No Child Left Unrecruited

Many parents and educators angered by a provision—buried within the No Child Left Behind Act— requiring schools to assist in military recruitment efforts

A provision of the No Child Left Behind Act requiring schools to provide military recruiters access to students’ names, phone numbers and addresses has critics fuming.

When the new education laws took effect in September, school districts nationwide were required to provide student contact information to military recruiters upon request—or lose any federal funding the school receives. Though the mandate has raised concerns of military encroachment on the nation’s schools, Douglas Smith, a spokesman for U.S. Army recruiting command, said the requirement is well-intentioned.

“The intent is that military recruiters have access to high school juniors and seniors,” said Smith, “so recruiters can contact them to tell them what the military offers in terms of educational benefits, learning a skill and the other things that military enlistment offers a young person.”

Critics of the requirement, like Heidi Siegfried, interim executive director of Capital Region Chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union, do not think a federal education law should grant military recruiters access to the nation’s schoolchildren.

“Schools are there to educate our children,” said Siegfried. “Education is one of the few social goods provided universally in our country, and the idea that it should be somehow linked to recruitment efforts is not right.”

Officials at the Albany City School District, which received approximately $8.2 million in federal funding this year, much of which was spent on programs for at-risk students, said it wasn’t taking a chance.

“We’re following the law,” said Theresa Swidorski, member of the Albany City School Board. “It was quietly placed in the bill and most people didn’t know about it till later. A catch-22 can describe it.”

Parents can choose to opt their child out of the federally mandated recruitment effort by notifying their child’s school in writing. But John Amidon, with Veterans for Peace, said that access to student information should be given with consent, not entitlement. Amidon, who served in the United States Marine Corps from 1964-1969 and has been a vocal opponent of the new measure at Albany School Board meetings, said students should notify their school if they want to be considered for military recruitment efforts.

“These children are being taken advantage of,” Amidon said. “Kids are more susceptible to the military mindset at the ages of 14 through 17 than they are once they go to college. Once they grow up a little, they are harder to recruit because they are not so susceptible to what is essentially military propaganda.”

“It is a matter of fairness,” said Smith. “If the schools assist colleges and private employers with access to their students’ information, then it would be a matter of fairness to give military recruiters that same access.”

But when asked how fair it was that a school’s willingness to assist with military recruitment efforts hinge upon the loss of federal funding, Smith ducked the question.

“That’s what the Congress passed,” Smith said.

Siegfried also has taken issue with the manner in which parents received the letter to request that their child’s contact information be kept from military recruiters. She said the notification is sent home at the beginning of the school year amid a pile of paperwork, and the form looks like “a standards [Family Education Rights and Privacy Act] letter.”

“You’d think we could get the school board to state it in more bold print,” Siegfried said.

Some parents have expressed concern as well. Mark Mishler, an Albany civil-rights lawyer who has two children in the city’s schools, said a district being forced to assist with recruitment further adds to “the militarization of our society.”

“I am worried about my sons and everybody else’s sons,” Mishler said. “The law doesn’t allow, in any organized way, an opportunity for people who are opposed to the military to have a way to speak out against the military. I would feel better if peace groups had the same access to students as the military does.”

The mandate has also compromised entire school districts whose politics stand in opposition to those of the U.S. military. In October, facing the prospect of losing $41 million dollars in federal funds, the Rochester City School Board rewrote a longstanding policy that denied groups that it deemed discriminatory access to its schools. The policy had covered military recruiters.

“How the military’s discriminatory policies fit into institutions that have policies against discrimination is an issue that has been around for a long time,” said Mishler. “The military is discriminatory, I don’t think anybody has any question about that. I think it is a good reason to keep them off campuses, but it is not the only reason to keep them off.”

Smith would not comment on questions regarding the U.S. military’s alleged discriminatory policies toward gays and lesbians, but denied that the military recruitment provision in No Child Left Behind affects a school district’s right to exercise free speech.

“The school district has a choice to make—whether to comply or not to comply,” Smith said. “That is the bottom line.”

Citing the success of military recruitment programs like the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps, Amidon said he doesn’t see the need for further military recruitment in schools. He said recruitment can result in successful military careers for some, but he doesn’t want to “minimize the impact of the No Child Left Behind Act.”

“It is a very intrusive invasion of students’ privacy and a stepped-up effort to recruit our children without parents really knowing what is going on,” Amidon said. “Forcing schools to give the names of students and threatening them with cutting federal funding is quite despicable when you think about how we’d like to conduct business in a civil and sensible manner.”

—T.D.


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