The debate over natural-gas drilling in New York has reached a higher pitch over the last two weeks as the end of a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing, or "hydrofracking," nears.
In the wake of a blowout at a gas well in Pennsylvania that spilled toxic chemicals into a nearby creek, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has ordered state environmental officials to step up an ongoing probe into the alleged perils of hydrofracking, which includes pollution of drinking water and air. Their findings are expected to be released in July, and will coincide with the end of a current moratorium on new drilling permits.
Meanwhile, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is suing the federal government for what he says is a failure to properly study the environmental and public health effects of fracking in the Delaware River Basin, part of which is in New York.
While most of the lower Hudson Valley's drinking water would not be at risk if hydrofracking were permitted in the state's gas-rich Southern Tier, local lawmakers are getting involved as well. Assemblyman Bob Castelli (R-Goldens Bridge), who has been a vocal critic of fracking in the past, co-sponsored a bill that passed the Assembly last week that would impose a moratoriumon fracking until June 1, 2012.
“It is imperative that we evaluate fully the potential impact of this procedure and utilize science, not conjecture, to determine the real environmental cost of drilling," he said.
All of the Assembly members in Westchester, Putnam and Rockland co-sponsored and voted in favor of the measure except Steve Katz, a Republican who represents parts of Putnam and Northern Westchester.
Industry officials say the state has had plenty of time to study fracking, and cites a potential windfall of jobs and revenue for the economically-depressed Southern Tier region. Further, the moratorium would apply not only to horizontal hydrofracking, the method under scrutiny, but vertical drilling as well.
“Some legislators misunderstand the process to extract oil and natural gas and the regulations that serve to protect the public and the environment,” said Brad Gill, the head of the Independent Oil and Gas Association of New York. “As a result, they are considering legislation that will harm 400 companies and threaten the jobs of 4,500 current industry employees.”
Last year, then-Gov. David Paterson vetoed an identical bill because of the impact it would have had on existing wells. He replaced the bill with his own executive order, which put the current moratorium in place. The proposed moratorium is being championed in the Senate by Sen. David Carlucci, a Democrat who represents Rockland and parts of Orange County. Carlucci said the industry has spread "disinformation" about the proposal, and that it would not affect vertical wells.
"We've seen so many recent developments that are not going to be included in the [state's] findings; we've got to do everything we can to make sure all the facts are seen," Carlucci said on a radio show last week.
It's unclear whether the bill will pass the Republican-led Senate, where job creation is a top priority. The chamber's deputy majority leader, Binghamton Republican Tom Libous, hails from the area that would benefit the most economically from fracking, and has come out as an ardent supporter of drilling. Carlucci said he would use the remaining week of the legislative session to push his colleagues to support the moratorium.
Here's a look at what our local lawmakers were up to between June 3 and June 10:
Assemblyman Tom Abinanti (D-Greenburgh) co-sponsored a bill that would allow state residents to register to vote online. A person would be eligible for the online system if his or her signature is already on file with the state. In a memo, the bill's sponsors say the measure will save the state money and increase New York's dismal voter turnout, which is consistently among the lowest in the nation. Assemblywomen Sandy Galef (D-Ossining) and Amy Paulin (D-Scarsdale) also are co-sponsors.
Assemblyman Bob Castelli (R-Goldens Bridge) introduced a bill that would require all daycare providers, including nursery schools, to implement the rating system QUALITYstarsNY. The program is already run by the state and invites daycare services to apply for a rating. A comprehensive survey measures areas such as learning environment, qualifications and management.
Assemblywoman Sandy Galef (D-Ossining) introduced a bill that would allow Westchester, Putnam, Rockland and other counties to opt out of the controversial MTA payroll tax. The revenue would be replaced by tolls on the Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queensboro and Williamsburg bridges in New York City. Another bill would allow the parents of a still-born child to receive a certificate of stillbirth. In a memo, Galef cited the emotional trauma involved and said such a certificate "would ease [the parents'] pain and help in their healing process."
Assemblywoman Ellen Jaffee (D-Suffern) stepped into the middle of a dispute between officials in Suffern and a resident who claims he was hit with a late fee because the village lost the check he sent in to pay his property tax bill, according to the Journal News. Jaffee, the paper said last week, asked the village to consider dropping the penalty because the resident, Steven Alpert, "had made a good-faith effort in presenting his case." The village maintains that it never received the check from Alpert.-
Assemblyman Steve Katz (R-Yorktown) introduced a local bill that would allow the town of Somers to hire court clerks who do not reside in the town, which is currently prohibited. Katz joined Putnam County Interim Executive Paul Eldridge and other local officials on June 6 to call on the legislature to provide relief to local governments from unfunded state mandates. Local officials are concerned that if the proposed 2 percent cap on property tax increases passes, counties and towns will be squeezed by burdensome mandates, such as employee pension and health care contributions and filing requirements. Katz last week opened a new district office at 824 Route 6 in Mahopac. He said the new location is more centralized for his sprawling district.
Assemblyman George Latimer (D-Rye) introduced a bill that would phase out the MTA payroll tax in suburban counties. The tax, which is currently 34 cents for every $100 of payroll, would be reduced each year until it was eliminated in 2014. In New York City, the tax would be lowered to 21 cents for every $100 by 2014.
Latimer on June 8 hosted a local business summit at the Rye Free Reading Room which featured officials from a number of local chambers of commerce. Latimer said he hoped the event would allow local business leaders to share ideas and establish cooperative projects. The keynote speaker was Westchester Business Council President Dr. Marsha Gordon, who said developing existing businesses is a more effective strategy than trying to bring new businesses in.
Latimer, like many of his colleagues, is sponsoring a summer reading program for younger students in his district. Middle and elementary school students who read for at least 15 minutes on 40 days throughout July and August will receive an Assembly commendation. The assemblyman said he has distributed information on the program to all of the schools in his Sound Shore district.
Assemblywoman Amy Paulin (D-Scarsdale) introduced a local bill that would allow school districts in the village of Tuckahoe to restrict student transportation to a seven-mile radius around a school.The Assembly on June 2 passed a bill sponsored by Paulin that would require local governments to make all documents discussed at a public meeting available prior to the meeting. The state Committee on Open Government is concerned that municipalities make it difficult for residents to review documents before they're taken up by local boards.
Assemblyman Ken Zebrowski (D-New City) introduced a bill that would decrease, from 3 to 2 percent, a cap on annual growth in Medicaid expenses for counties. Zebrowski said the idea was to bring health care costs in line with the proposed 2 percent cap on annual property tax increases.
Zebrowski and Rockland County Legislator Ed Day last week announced they had met with county and local officials to ensure that residents are kept informed on timelines and detour routes related to two construction projects in New City. The projects include the South Main Street revitalization along Congers Road, due to be completed next year, and tree clearing along New Hempstead Road as part of a larger redesign slated to end in 2013.
The assemblyman was on hand June 4 for a memorial walk dedicated to his late father, former Assemblyman Kenneth Zebrowski, who died from Hepatitis C in 2007. The walk raised $5,000, half of which will go toward Hepatitis C research while the other half will be used for scholarships for local students.
Sen. Greg Ball (R-Patterson), who is considered a key undecided vote in the push to legalize same-sex marriage, said definitively last week that he would not vote for such a measure unless it includes clear exemptions from anti-discrimination laws for religious-based institutions, such as catering halls and adoption centers. He also said the state could pass strong civil union legislation that would grant most of the rights of marriage to same-sex couples without using the contentious term "marriage."
A top aide to Ball created a fake e-mail address and used it to forward a private letter from a constituent to the media, according to the Lewisboro Ledger newspaper. The Ledger had posted the letter online, only to have Dan Branda, Ball's deputy communications director, ask them to take it down days later because the woman who wrote it did not intend for it to be made public. On June 6, the paper reported the letter, which contained medical information, an address and phone number, had briefly been posted on the website of the Daily News as well. Ball's chief of staff, Jim Coleman, apologized for the mix-up but maintained the woman had given permission for the letter to be published.
The senator spoke to YNN's Liz Benjamin on June 6 about same-sex marriage and the governor's decision to pull New York out of a federal program designed to weed out criminals who are also illegal immigrants. Cuomo said the program, called Secure Communities, has failed, and cited criticisms concerning implementation on the federal level. Ball supports New York's participation in Secure Communities, and told Benjamin the state has deported 27,000 dangerous criminals since the program was launched in 2008.
Sen. David Carlucci (D-Clarkstown) introduced a bill that would suspend until June 1, 2012 the issuance of new permits for hydraulic fracturing, or "hydrofracking," a controversial method of natural-gas drilling that opponents say can cause water and air pollution. The Assembly passed an identical bill last week. There is currently a moratorium on fracking in place, but it will expire once the state released a much-anticipated report on the impacts of hydrofracking. That report is expected sometime this summer.
Two local bills would establish the Piermont Public Library as the polling place for library elections and allow the village of Haverstraw to hire an assessor who does not live in the village.The Senate last week passed a bill sponsored by Carlucci that would allow local governments and state officials to opt out of receiving hard copies of the State Register, a list of rules changes and public notices that is updated weekly. Carlucci said the bill would save the state hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Sen. Suzi Oppenheimer (D-Port Chester) applauded the June 8 announcement that aviation contractor Atlas Air Worldwide Holdings will keep its headquarters in Purchase. The move will retain 460 jobs and see the creation of 50 new full-time positions. The senator particularly lauded the efforts of Gov. Cuomo and his economic development advisers. Atlas will receive up to $442,000 in sales tax exemptions from the Westchester County Industrial Development Agency.
Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers) told Gannett News Service that she is pushing for the renewal and strengthening of rent-control laws, as current laws are set to expire this week. Lawmakers only have until the end of the legislative session on July 20 to pass a new set of rent laws, which are opposed by the Senate's Republican majority and have become a political football in the waning days of the session.