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Toxic touring: (l-r) Bob Prentiss and Tania Knight at the Salt Kill. Photo by: Joe Putrock

Toxic Avengers
Citizens keep the pressure on Norlite to clean up its act

‘Those of us who live so close to Norlite feel it may be too late for the masks to help us, but we wanted to give you the option of wearing one,” said Kate Tarbay, after handing out white masks to the approximately 40 people who met at Maplewood Elementary School on Monday (July 19). They were there for a “toxic tour” of the neighborhood surrounding Norlite, a hazardous-waste burning facility on the Cohoes-Colonie border. Leading the tour were members of Citizens Halting Risks of Norlite’s Industrial Contaminants, a group of residents who organized last summer to address questions and concerns they had about living next to the plant [“Chronic Exposure,” Dec. 4, 2003].

CHRONIC members organized the tour to illustrate what life looks, smells, and sounds like living around Norlite. The tour stopped at the Salt Kill, a milky green creek that runs through Norlite, then behind backyards en route to the Hudson. CHRONIC member Tania Knight remembers it once was clear and full of life. The shallow stream didn’t freeze this winter and is filled with what some believe is the aggregate Norlite manufactures. At Saratoga Sites, a public-housing complex located next to Norlite’s stacks, Tarbay described the persistent industrial noise residents are subject to. On another side of Norlite’s property, in an area activists say Norlite hopes to have rezoned for industrial use, homes could be seen coated with the pervasive oily soot that covers the neighborhood.

One of CHRONIC’s supporters, Assemblyman Bob Prentiss (R-Colonie), attended and decried Norlite as “a known environmental polluter that seems to think it can ride roughshod over this neighborhood.” Numerous other state and local officials were also on the tour, mostly from the town of Colonie; city officials from Cohoes were absent, which did not go unnoticed.

For the past two days (July 20-21), Norlite tested its air emissions for the third time this year, as required by state and federal environmental performance standards. In two prior tests, each of Norlite’s stacks were releasing more than 75 percent of the permitted limit for dioxin emissions, which, according to an agreement with DEC, means the test must be repeated.

Norlite’s water and air emissions permits are up for review, and it is working to renew its permit to burn hazardous waste later this year. CHRONIC is looking forward to the opportunity for meaningful public comment during those reviews.

Cathy Barron, a local resident who went on the tour, said she is seriously concerned for her family’s health, and thinks she would feel safer if Norlite “could clean up their act.”

Later this month the Department of Environmental Conservation will conduct tests on the Salt Kill to determine the water’s health—one of many things CHRONIC has been requesting. Citizens remain worried about health risks from off-site land, water and air pollution, and say the only way they’ll get real answers is if state or federal agencies conduct adequate health studies and off-site environmental testing. CHRONIC members said testing, particularly ambient air monitoring, would provide concrete information about what goes beyond the fence line, instead of leaving them to wonder.

“We don’t want to move, and we don’t feel we should have to move,” said Tarbay. “We should be able to have clean air to breathe.”

—Ashley Hahn

To pledge or not to pledge: Assemblymen Bob Prentiss. Photo by: Jessica Sipos

Pledging My Time
State lawmakers disagree about a proposal aimed at making sure the budget is read before it’s passed

A request delivered to state legislators by one of New York’s fiscal watchdog groups met with a mixed response last week, as local lawmakers offered differing views on how the state’s budget process would be affected.

The Citizens Budget Commission, a nonprofit organization based in New York City, recently called on all of the state’s lawmakers to adopt a three-day waiting period before passing any budget that was introduced. According to the CBC, introducing a delay between the introduction and passage of a budget would encourage lawmakers to actually read the budget, rather than passing it in a flurry of last-minute activity. State budgets tend to include hundreds of pages of text, giving lawmakers and their staff little time to analyze their contents.

Only 25 percent of the state’s legislators signed the pledge, with even less support coming from the majority party in either house. Of the Assembly’s Democratic majority, only 19 lawmakers signed the CBC pledge, while none of the Senate’s Republican majority agreed to the waiting period.

“We’re spoon-fed this stuff from those three men in a room, and it’s humanly impossible to read through all of those budget bills at three in the morning,” said Assemblyman Bob Prentiss (R-Colonie), one of only two local officials to formally approve the CBC proposal. “That’s no way to translate the people’s interests.”

Assemblyman Jack McEneny (D-Albany) rejected this assessment, calling the proposal “demeaning” to legislators. According to McEneny, approving such a proposal would only support the notion that the state’s three top lawmakers, Senate Majority Leader Joseph L. Bruno (R-Brunswick), Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) and Gov. George E. Pataki, hold all of the power in the state—with the rest of the Legislature simply functioning as a consenting party.

Jack McEneny. Photo by: Martin Benjamin

“I resent the implication,” said McEneny, who added that he doesn’t sign any of the pledges that arrive at his office each day.

“From a simplistic point of view, it sounds great,” said McEneny, “but if you make a promise that absolute, you would technically have to wait another three days every time a small detail was reworded and the bill was drafted again. . . . That 72-hour delay is expensive.”

Assemblyman Ron Canestrari (D-Cohoes) echoed a similar sentiment, calling the proposal “unduly restrictive,” while a spokesman for Bruno simply added that, “as a general rule, the [Senate majority leader] does not sign onto pledges.”

The only other local official to formally approve the three-day review, Sen. Neil D. Breslin (D-Albany), said that he would appreciate having additional time to review budget bills with his staff.

Assemblyman James Tedisco (R-Schenectady) voiced his support for the mandatory waiting period, but said he had not received the pledge in time to respond.

While New York state law already calls for a three-day waiting period for all budgets introduced in the Legislature, bills can be hurried through the process by the commonly used “message of necessity” put forth by the governor.

—Rick Marshall

Party for the Right to Fight
Local activists gather to screen anti-Fox film as part of a nationwide day of house parties

First imagine planning a party for a group of people you’ve never met.

Now imagine planning thousands of similar parties, all of them set to kick off at precisely the same time around the country.

That’s exactly what Internet-based advocacy group MoveOn did Sunday night (July 18), and all it took was the Internet, an eagerly anticipated film, and many, many gracious hosts.

In two adjoining rooms of Maureen Aumand’s Albany home, a small crowd milled about, clustered in groups of two or three and administering the standard introductions. This was the third time Aumand and her husband had opened their home to MoveOn members, and she was darting from room to room, monitoring the pulse of the party. Many attendees were no strangers to progressive activism.

“Yeah, I was at that protest—the one in New York a while back,” said Justin Miller as he casually leaned against a wall, chatting up a couple he had introduced himself to only a few minutes earlier.

“Yeah, that was a big scene,” added another guest with a nod and a sip of wine, “pretty intense.”

In an age when computers are more often perceived as substitutes for social interaction rather than facilitators, Web-based groups like MoveOn have managed to defy the stereotype, successfully translating online activity into real-life activism.

MoveOn, which began during the Clinton impeachment process to coordinate a call to censure him and “move on,” has become a powerful organization coordinating opposition to the war in Iraq and providing financial and advertising support for progressive and Democratic candidates, including John Kerry.

A few weeks ago, people on MoveOn’s millions-strong e-mail list got a message suggesting house parties to screen Out-Foxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism. Out-Foxed offers a scathing indictment of Fox News, using former Fox employees to argue that the network has a penchant for blurring the line between propaganda and journalism. A similar round of house parties had just been held to view Fahrenheit 9/11.

Anyone wishing to view the film could choose to host or attend a party. Those who opted to host could purchase a DVD of the film and register information about their party, including attendance limits and directions. Soon after, potential guests could request a list of all the possible locations near their home and send an electronic RSVP.

As the party had been arranged almost entirely over the Internet, many of the people in Aumand’s home had never met before Sunday’s event.

“Technology facilitates this communication, these face-to-face encounters with individuals who share similar beliefs and attitudes,” explained Marty Manjak, another first-time guest via MoveOn. “Once you develop a synergy with other people, it helps you to take the next step.”

“The people here might not normally be the rallying, joining type,” said Aumand. “[The house party] gives them the freedom to get together outside of their own homes with people sharing a common interest.”

According to Aumand, the next step at MoveOn events usually involves a formal call to action. At Sunday’s house party, Aumand’s guests were invited to sign a complaint calling for the Federal Communications Commission to investigate Fox News’ use of the slogan “fair and balanced” in their broadcasts.

“Fox is the most obscene of the obscene,” said Ray Aumand, Maureen’s husband. “Maybe if people get together and discuss this, rationality will prevail.”

And discuss it they did, with all 30,000-plus house-party guests joining a conference call with liberal talk-radio host Al Franken. After thanking MoveOn members for viewing the film—an interview with Franken featured prominently in the production—he then urged listeners to spread the news about Out-Foxed and let local broadcasters know when the objectivity of news is suspect.

For many of Aumand’s guests, however, the event’s appeal was not to be found in the 30,000-person powwow or the chance to talk shop with one of the progressive movement’s loudest voices.

“It was just really great to get people together outside of a protest or something like that,” explained Miller. “It was great to not be in such a negative atmosphere. . . . Maybe next time, I’ll throw the party.”

—Rick Marshall

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