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Rob Hayes of Environmental Advocates NY discusses environmental goals in Governor Hochul's budget plan

Rob Hayes is Director of Clean Water at Environmental Advocates NY
Lucas Willard
Rob Hayes is Director of Clean Water at Environmental Advocates NY

New York Governor Kathy Hochul outlined her $233 billion state budget proposal this week. While the spending plan represents a $6 billion increase over the spending plan approved last year, the Democrat described it as proving "fiscal discipline."

But environmental advocates are not entirely sold.

Rob Hayes, Director of Clean Water at Albany-based Environmental Advocates N-Y, spoke with WAMC's Lucas Willard about Governor Hochul's environmental goals for 2025.

This is not a strong budget when it comes to environmental issues. There are actually some very bad policies on there when it comes to the environment. One thing that we are very concerned about is Governor Hochul’s proposed cut to clean water funding. Each year since 2019, the state legislature and the governor have invested $500 million in a program called the Clean Water Infrastructure Act. And this program funds water main replacements and sewage treatment, plant upgrades, PFAS remediation, all of these things necessary to make sure that New Yorkers have clean, safe water. The governor however, is proposing to cut that funding to just $250 million. That is a 50 percent cut to clean water. And that is going to mean fewer projects getting state support to do clean water work, it's going to mean fewer jobs created across the state, and at the end of the day, it's going to mean more costs falling on New Yorkers, especially through higher water bills. You know, these cuts are completely contrary to the governor's promise to build a more affordable New York.

Now the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law at the federal level has included a lot of money, billions of dollars for clean water infrastructure. So is the governor leaning on those federal funds in some ways?

We are seeing federal funding starting to get out the door and help communities jumpstart these long overdue drinking water and wastewater infrastructure projects. But it's also really important to note that the scale of the need in New York State to fix our pipes is absolutely enormous. And federal funding alone will not be enough to make sure that every New Yorker has clean water. That's why the state's investment in clean water has been so important in helping to close that gap and it's why we're so disappointed that Governor Hochul chose not to prioritize this program this year and cut its funding.

Now let's talk about some of the other environmental priorities outlined by the governor, if you don't mind. The first thing that the governor mentioned in her speech on Tuesday was a plan to plant trees $47 million to plant 25 million trees. What does EANY think about this initiative?

You know, certainly planting more trees is important, and they can be an important component of combating the climate crisis. But it is absolutely, more must be done to combat the climate crisis. And there are a few other climate policies in the governor's budget. You know, we were pleased to see portions of the NY HEAT Act in there to make sure that New York continues moving off of our gas energy system. But unfortunately, there was no funding included in this budget dedicated to fighting the climate crisis. And we absolutely need to see that if we are going to meet our very ambitious and very necessary emissions reduction goals going forward.

The governor did outline several funding streams funded by the Environmental Bond Act, the $4.2 billion Environmental Bond Act if my numbers are correct.

 I believe so. Yeah.

$400 million for the Environmental Protection Fund $100 million for state Superfund projects and $500 million in clean water projects over two years. So, what does EANY think of the utilization of the Environmental Bond Act?

So it's very important to start getting those Bond Act funds out the door. Again, the needs across New York state for this funding are absolutely enormous. So we're pleased to see the governor starting to create new programs to do flood buyouts and green infrastructure grants. All of these things will help protect New Yorkers against flooding, against increasing extreme weather events. But of course, more needs to be done to protect clean water. And at the end of the day, the Bond Act funding is not intended to supplant pre-existing environmental funding commitments in the state budget. This is supposed to be complimentary funding, and it is no justification for cutting clean water funding through the Clean Water Infrastructure Act.

You mentioned the buyouts. The budget outlines $250 million for voluntary buyouts for homeowners and property owners in flood-prone areas and the governor outlined Long Island as one example. But we've seen a lot of communities in New York State affected by extreme flooding, especially this past year. Is this something that's gonna go over well with homeowners and is this an excuse for environmental policy?

Well, I think it's important to note, you know, these are voluntary buyouts, you know. I don't believe anyone is being forced to sell their home at this point in time, you know, we are seeing 100 year floods, you know, every couple of years now, and there are going to be parts of the state that are going to become much more dangerous to live in. And you know, where people want to remove themselves from those dangers and from those risks, I think the state should be helping them do that. It's going to mean less property damage going forward, and it gives the state a new opportunity to protect some of the natural spaces across the state and reclaim some of those for habitat protection and flood buffers in a way that's going to make New York more resilient and sustainable going forward.

Now, New York does have some pretty aggressive climate goals and legislation that's been passed over the last couple of years, including the electrification of school buses, as this being one example. Do you think that the state is doing enough on the whole to incentivize homeowners, businesses, school districts to actually conform to the environmental and climate goals outlined by the state?

You know, the goals that New York State have set to move towards electric vehicles are absolutely feasible, if the political will and the funding is there. Unfortunately, there is a lot more money available for electric school buses through the Environmental Bond Act. And I think the first tranche of that money is starting to move out the door. So hopefully, that will help school districts afford some of these upgrades. And at the end of the day, you know, school districts, there are a lot of benefits to both school districts and their students from this transition. You know, electric school buses means no more diesel pollution the kids are breathing in every time they're waiting for the bus. So, this is absolutely a transition that needs to happen. And we think it can happen in the timeframe that the state has laid out.

Rob, I think when we last spoke, we talked about the Lead Pipes Right to Know Act. And those regulations are now in fact, in in my community where I live, I've seen bulletins posted about getting input and getting feedback from residents on reporting lead pipes lead service lines, how do you feel about this program in particular, and its deadline coming up later this year?

We were very pleased that the governor signed the Lead Ripe Right to Know Act this past December. In this bill is really all about transparency. It's helping New Yorkers find out whether they have a lead pipe, whether their drinking water is at risk of contamination, and what is the scale of this problem in their community. So, we can start driving more policies and more investments to get these pipes out of the ground. In terms of the next steps for implementing this bill, every water utility across the state is required to submit information on where they think all of these lead pipes are located in their systems. That's due to the State Department of Health in October of this year, so about you know, six more months ago or so that water utilities have. And once that information is submitted, the Department of Health will then make all of that available to the public online through their website. And that will hopefully provide New Yorkers a much easier opportunity to find out whether they have lead in their drinking water.

So, Rob, it's budget season. There are a lot of groups that have descended on the capitol already, and there will continue to be demonstrations. When will Environmental Advocates show up at the state capitol?

 Well, you know, we're always at the state capitol, but we have a very big event coming up on clean water in just a couple of weeks. On January 30th an enormous coalition of organizations is going to be showing up to the capitol to voice their support for clean water funding and to decry the cuts that the governor has proposed. You know, this will comprise environmental groups and water and wastewater utilities and environmental justice partners. You know, there is so much broad and bipartisan support for clean water funding. Everyone recognizes that every single New Yorker across the state deserves clean and safe drinking water. And really, these investments are a win-win for public health and the economy. Not only are we protecting our environment by investing in clean water, but we're creating tens of thousands of good paying family supporting jobs all across the state. And that has huge ripple effects in local economies, and ultimately revitalizes the communities that are going to be necessary for New York's growth going forward.

Lucas Willard is a reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011.
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