Regulate Toxins

by Tom Ellis

In the wake of the George Floyd murder, much has been said and written about how policing and public safety require major overhauls in the United States. The same applies to how the New York state government regulates environmental toxins. Human health and the environment are being poisoned with the support of the state environmental conservation (DEC) and health (DOH) departments.

A major aspect of the problem is that the governor appoints top staff of both agencies. These regulators are thus dependent on keeping the governor happy because he can fire them too. They either read the governor’s mind or somehow figure out what he wants. The governor has said NYS is open for business. Commissioners can take a hint.

Locally we have three powerful corporations that are public health menaces. Waste Connections owns the Dunn dump in Rensselaer, located right next to a school. Lafarge owns a cement factory in Ravena, right next to two schools. Norlite owns a hazardous waste incinerator in the city of Cohoes.

Lafarge now burns coal and desires to add tires to the fuel mix in its cement kiln. Burning tires will reduce costs and increase profits. Lafarge has a history of toxic air pollution, particularly mercury. DEC has green-lighted the tire burning by not requiring preparation of an environmental impact statement.

Norlite, a subsidiary of a larger corporation, has burned hazardous wastes for decades despite many malfunctions, permit violations, and promises to do better. Norlite burned the highly toxic PFAS/AFFF in 2018-2019 without notifying the city government. DEC may have been aware of it. DEC’s permitting Norlite to burn millions of pounds of chemicals, many of them known to be hazardous, and many whose toxicity is unknown, is a giant uncontrolled experiment that puts thousands of people in Cohoes and Troy at risk.

DEC granted Dunn (Waste Connections) permits in 2012 to operate a large landfill right next to a large school. Many think doing so is insane. Rensselaer and East Greenbush residents are getting sick. DEC is working closely with dump operators to try to lessen the health and environmental impact so the dump can remain open for many more years. DEC should have never allowed the dump to be permitted, admit it made an error, and revoke the permits now.

The state health department is mostly absent from these major public health controversies. State health officials display no sense of urgency about the health of Rensselaer, East Greenbush, Cohoes, Troy, Ravena, or Coeymans residents, including children.

A 1998 DOH research study found that women living near solid waste landfills where gas escapes had a four-fold increased chance of leukemia or bladder cancer. The health department’s center for environmental health director will not answer written questions from me about how DOH and DEC work together or provide any links to medical and/or scientific information about the health threat the Dunn dump poses Health professionals are supposed to first do no harm. Health regulators should be held to the same standard.

DEC commissioners have not answered written questions about the Dunn dump I sent last fall. Both agencies have secretive decision making processes that are not accountable to anyone.

We need a much better regulatory system than we now have. Having commissioners be appointed for five-year terms whom the governor can not fire would be a possible solution. Having a panel of commissioners for each agency who meet regularly and vote in public on policy decisions, such as the state Public Service Commission does, might be worth considering. Electing a statewide public (or public health) advocate such New York City voters do, might help. Having the voters in each county elect a public advocate would help protect us. Having an inspector general for each state agency might improve regulatory transparency and oversight. Requiring the state health department create and maintain websites on environmental health issues when requested to do so would be helpful.

The state legislature needs to step in, investigate, hold hearings, and enact effective reforms. The legislature could deny to the governor the power to appoint DEC and DOH commissioners, and have a Board of Regents selected by the legislature, select the commissioners, similar to the way the Board of Regents selects the state education department commissioner.

Two things are certain: the current regulatory system does not protect the public health or environment, and the public is at great risk. DEC and DOH commissioners will never admit they are pawns of the governor; nor will they acknowledge that major environmental health decisions are, contrary to what they say, not based on science, but are political decisions protective of large corporations.

Published in July/August 2020
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