Eight Chapters, Thousands of Members, One Voice

Strategic Growth Council affirms its role as lead agency implementing cap and trade revenues for sustainable communities

By Amanda Eaken

SGC Chart 1.jpg

Amanda Eaken, Deputy Director, Sustainable Communities, San Francisco

“We definitely know both in statute and because of agreement among the Council that the Council will retain all important authority over this program and all responsibility for the success of this program.” – Mike McCoy, Executive Director of Strategic Growth Council, July 10, 2014

From the standing room only turnout at last week’s Strategic Growth Council (SGC) meeting, you would never have guessed we were smack in the middle of summer vacation season. The meeting was convened to discuss the new Affordable Housing and Sustainable Communities Program (AHSC), a recently designated recipient of some of the proceeds from California’s cap and trade program.

Supporters of California’s landmark sustainable communities and climate law SB 375 cheered this new program, as it represents the first permanent source of funding for implementing the Sustainable Communities Strategies that regions around the state have developed to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions under SB 375. The AHSC program received $130 million of cap and trade proceeds in the 2014 fiscal year, and 20% of all cap and trade revenues in following years (total estimated at several billion per year). Eligible uses of the AHSC funds include: affordable housing and transit-oriented development, transit, active transportation, complete streets, farmland conservation, planning to implement Sustainable Communities Strategies, and other programs and projects designed to limit greenhouse gas emissions by reducing car travel.

With an aggressive timeline to deploy funds, the Council is already starting to act.

In advance of the hearing, responding to some concerns about the Council’s proposed action to delegate implementation authority of the AHSC program, Senate President pro Tem and author of SB 375, Darrell Steinberg, sent a letter to Council Chairman Ken Alex. This letter makes clear that:

1) the Council should lead on ranking projects and distributing funds;

2) regional agencies charged with implementing SB 375 should play an active role in selecting the best projects for their regions;

3) the fund guidelines should be reexamined and open to revision after this first push to deploy funds; and,

4) the focus should be on GHG reductions.

During the Council meeting, good discussion clarified the Staff’s recommended action and provided greater specificity to the roles of the Council and supportive state agencies. An amendment to the Council’s action was made, clarifying that the Council will retain authority and coordinate the technical and administrative support from the Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD), the CA Natural Resources Agency, and the CA Department of Conservation (referred to in the chart below as “implementing agencies”). Council discussion—though no amendments to the motion—also affirmed their agreement with Steinberg’s other key points, namely 1) the MPOs will be key partners in fund distribution, 2) the Council fully expects to revisit these guidelines and implementation decisions after the first round, and 3) the mandate to reduce GHG emissions through this program is abundantly clear and was several times reinforced.

Councilmember Laird explained the collaborative effort under the Council’s leadership: “We’re reserving all the high-level decisions here. They are not being surrendered in every way, but for the expertise that our staff doesn’t have, or the capacity, or the breadth–that’s where you’re doing it [pointing to a HCD representative] within the overall direction or approval of the Strategic Growth Council.” The chart below presented by Council staff illustrates this point:


We are pleased to see the Council commit to a thorough public outreach process to develop the guidelines this summer. We had initially reacted that any decisions about which agency should be charged with implementing this program should follow rather than precede the public outreach process, but we are sympathetic to the goals of getting the funding out the door to communities expeditiously.

The breadth of possible projects, potential for innovation, and guarantee of greenhouse gas emissions reductions within this program is tremendous. We look forward to working closely with the Council, HCD, the Natural Resources Agency, the Dept. of Conservation, stakeholders, and other supportive agencies as they develop fund guidelines for this first round of cap and trade dollars and get money flowing quickly towards the best projects.

Source: National Resources Defense Council

EPA's Holds Clean Power Plan Hearings In DC, Atlanta, Denver, and Pittsburgh

By David Doniger

Click here to take action

David Doniger, Director, Climate and Clean Air Program, Washington, D.C.

EPA kicked off hearings this week in four cities on its proposed carbon pollution standards for the nation’s 1500 power plants. Hundreds of concerned citizens are turning out at each hearing to raise their voices for action. A team of NRDC analysts and activists are testifying. Here are my remarks delivered on Tuesday, and links to my colleagues’.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak today on behalf of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s 1.4 million members and online activists in support of EPA’s Clean Power Plan, the proposed standards to limit carbon pollution from existing power plants. Several of my NRDC colleagues will testify during the course of these hearings, and we will address different aspects of the proposal.

EPA’s proposal is a giant leap forward in implementing President Obama’s Climate Action Plan, announced in June 2013. “The question,” the president said then, “is whether we will have the courage to act before it’s too late. And how we answer will have a profound impact on the world we leave behind not just to you, but to your children and to your grandchildren. As a President, as a father, and as an American, I am here to say we need to act.”

The President set out a specific timetable for EPA to propose and promulgate standards under the Clean Air Act to limit carbon pollution from the nation’s more than 1500 existing power plants. Power plants are the most important place to act, because they are responsible for nearly 40 percent of the nation’s carbon pollution. Power plants are responsible for more than two billion tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) pollution each year.

Limiting the carbon pollution from the nation’s existing power plants is the single most important thing our nation can do to fight climate change.

We limit all of the other air pollutants that come from power plants – the sulfur and nitrogen compounds that form dangerous soot and smog, as well as mercury and dozens of other hazardous air pollutants. But there are no federal limits on the carbon pollution that drives dangerous climate change, threatening our health and well-being, and the health and well-being of our children, grandchildren, and future generations.

So NRDC applauds EPA for proposing these standards. With hundreds of thousands of others, NRDC’s members are raising their voices in strong support for what you are doing. And we are already working with state and local officials, power companies, and other stakeholders across the country to begin developing smart and flexible state plans that advance energy efficiency and clean energy sources, to protect our health and our future while creating jobs and reducing electric bills.

The carbon pollution reductions these standards will achieve – 26% below 2005 levels by 2020, 30% below 2005 levels by 2030 – are substantial. In our view, even larger reductions are achievable cost-effectively in these time periods. We will have more to say later in these hearings, and in detailed written comments, on the opportunity to achieve greater carbon pollution reductions than EPA has proposed – bringing even greater public health and climate protection benefits to the American people.

EPA’s legal authority and responsibility to curb carbon pollution under the Clean Air Act is rock solid. The Supreme Court has upheld EPA’s authority to curb carbon pollution three times: in Massachusetts v. EPA in 2007, in American Electric Power v. Connecticut in 2011, and again last month in UARG v. EPA.

Under Section 111(d), EPA is on solid ground in proposing state-specific targets that recognize differences in how power is generated across the country. EPA is on solid ground in setting targets based on the reductions achievable using the range of methods available across the electricity system to reduce power plant carbon emissions. These methods include (1) cleaning up existing plants, (2) using cleaner resources more intensively, (3) expanding zero-emitting generation, and (4) reducing energy waste. Each of these four “building blocks” effectively reduces the emissions of affected facilities. And EPA is also on solid ground giving states and the affected facilities substantial flexibility to achieve the applicable performance target through different combinations of measures than those EPA used to set that target.

Contrary to some, there is nothing in the statutory language that limits the EPA to consider only measures implemented at each affected source itself when setting the level of emission reduction required by the Section 111(d) guidelines. To the contrary, the term “best system of emission reduction” and other features of the statutory language indicate EPA’s discretion to set targets based on the reductions achievable using the full range of measures available across the electricity system.

In sum, we strongly support the steps EPA is taking under the Climate Action Plan and the Clean Air Act to place meaningful, first-ever limits on the carbon pollution from existing power plants. And we look forward to continuing collaboration with states, industry, and other key stakeholders to craft and implement strong, effective carbon pollution standards to protect our health and our children’s future.

* * *

Click here for comments by Noah Long. (I’ll add more links as the posts go up.)

Source: National Resources Defense Council

EPA's Denver hearing on the Clean Power Plan: My comments

By Noah Long

Noah Long, Legal Director, Western Energy Project, Energy & Transportation Program, San Francisco

This morning I attended the sold-out EPA hearing in Denver on the proposed Clean Power Plan. From what I saw, most of the crowd and speakers were overwhelmingly in favor of strong and effective standards to cut carbon pollution. Here are my comments:

Good morning. My name is Noah Long. I am the legal director of the Western Energy Project at the Natural Resources Defense Council. Thank you for taking my comments on this important issue.

Power plants are responsible for emitting 40 percent of the industrial carbon pollution we are exposed to in the United States. While we limit how much arsenic, lead and mercury power plants are allowed to dump into the air, there currently is no limit set for how much carbon pollution should be allowed. That’s why the EPA’s proposed Clean Power Plan is so important. It sets the first-ever limits on carbon pollution from power plants, which is an essential step to address the costly impacts of climate change.

Abiding by this national standard will not only give states flexibility, but it can spur innovation all while protecting the health of our communities as we clean up our air. And it will begin to fulfill the obligation we have to future generations to be responsible stewards of this earthly inheritance of a livable planet.

As a westerner, I myself have already seen the effects of climate change. Since my grandparents moved to Colorado in the first half of the last century, temperatures have climbed, droughts and floods have become more common, snowpack and glaciers have diminished. These changes are threatening the economies and way of life across the west: creating challenges for farms, ranches, wildlife, and outdoor enthusiasts.

So I find myself wondering: will my son be able to enjoy fishing in the same rivers and streams, swimming the same alpine lakes and skiing through the same aspen glades I love so much? Because of climate change, I don’t know.

But western states are also demonstrating leadership and moving forward with clean energy to tackle climate change head-on. Western states are moving away from dirty fossil fuel and embracing cleaner and more cost effective solutions like renewable energy and energy efficiency.

  • Legislators and regulators in nearly every western state, from New Mexico to Washington, have decided to shutter old, dirty coal plants in favor of less polluting resources.
  • Many power plants across the west are already participating in a carbon market, because of California’s carbon standard.
  • Colorado has among the highest renewable energy standards in the country- and is reliably and affordably integrating higher and higher levels of renewable energy.
  • In Wyoming, plans are under way for the world’s largest wind energy facility;
  • California has the world’s largest solar thermal facility;
  • Solar power is being used to power Olympic facilities in Salt Lake, and Fort Carson, south of Colorado Springs.
  • With an average cost of 2.5 cents per kilowatt hour, western utilities and regulators from Idaho to Arizona are used to seeing energy efficiency as the fastest, cheapest and cleanest resource;
  • Now those same regulators are seeing and approving utility purchases of wind and solar power, as the cheapest power generation alternative for customers.

NRDC supports the building blocks put forward by the U.S. EPA, and agrees with providing the states the necessary flexibility to find their own ways to reduce emissions. We urge to you to move forward with this plan, and to move to swiftly in proposing a road map for cutting carbon pollution in amounts comparable to surrounding states from power plants located on tribal lands.

We know states are already developing renewable energy and investing in energy efficiency at levels even higher than EPA assumes is possible – we heartily support going beyond the proposed requirements as we know the benefits will increase as we do so. We know that utilities across the country are planning on shuttering old, inefficient coal plants. These changes in the power sector are creating jobs, improving public health and taking the first steps towards safeguarding our communities from the consequences of a changing climate.

States are leading the way on clean energy development and a strong Clean Power Plan will empower them to take the next steps in that direction.

Source: National Resources Defense Council

California and Mexico - Good Neighbors Working Together for Clean Energy

By Annie Notthoff

Annie Notthoff, California Advocacy Director, San Francisco office and Sacramento

With today’s signing of a new energy MOU, California and Mexico took another step in the march to a clean energy future. Mexico is already committed to getting 35% of its energy from renewable sources by 2024 and California is on target to produce 33% of its electricity from clean energy by 2020. Today they agreed to do more. The potential for solar, geothermal and wind energy development in the border region is particularly promising. By working together, sharing information and technology exchange, California and Mexico can jump start a shared clean energy economy, bringing much needed jobs while cutting carbon pollution.

Transmission will be key to get new clean energy to where it’s needed. Making the most of the existing electricity grid, prioritizing energy efficiency and building any new infrastructure that is needed in places with the least environmental conflicts are lessons that can extend across the border into Mexico to help build a responsible, sustainable energy future for both countries.

Source: National Resources Defense Council

New report: Drinking water at risk from poorly regulated oil and gas waste injection

By Amy Mall

Amy Mall, Senior Policy Analyst, Washington, D.C.

Yesterday the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released an eagerly awaited report on the state of something called the Underground Injection Control program. This program, aka “UIC,” is designed to protect underground sources of drinking water from the underground injection of fluids, under the authority of the Safe Drinking Water Act. While fracking is exempt from the SDWA due to the notorious “Halliburton Loophole,” the underground injection of oil and gas wastewater is not. Wells into which oil and gas wastewater is injected are known as “Class II wells” in the UIC program. Oil and gas wastewater, including both fracking flowback and/or produced water, is injected into Class II wells either for disposal or to enhance recovery of residual oil and gas reserves.

The wastwater can contain benzene and other volatile organic compounds, heavy metals, radioactive materials, and more, and can be quite toxic. The GAO report evaluated U.S. EPA’s oversight of the Class II program. Some states administer the program because they applied for primacy and met EPA’s approval. In other states, EPA administers the program directly. GAO reviewed the program in six states that have primacy and in two states where EPA has primacy. Each state reviewed had among the highest number of UIC wells in their region.

Extensive investigations by ProPublica and complaints from communities in Ohio, West Virginia, and Texas have made clear that the UIC program is completely unprepared to safely regulate the huge amount of dangerous oil and gas wastewater. That is why NRDC has called for, among other things, federal regulations that would ensure this waste is subject to hazardous waste safeguards. This new GAO report confirms what communities across the country have known for years: drinking water is at risk. Here are some of GAO’s key findings:

  • At least 2 billion gallons of oil and gas wastewater are injected underground in the U.S. every day.
  • A “few” significant violations have led to contamination of drinking water sources, but GAO does not specify how many, where they occurred, or how they occurred. It is unclear if GAO was able to get these details.
  • More than 90 percent of produced water in the U.S. is injected into Class II wells.
  • Regulations for Class II wells have remained largely the same since 1980. While EPA reviews in 1988 and 1992 recommended changes, they were never made.
  • Federal grants to help states administer the UIC program have not increased since the 1990s.
  • Of the six states reviewed, four had less than ten Class II inspectors. There are more than 170,000 Class II wells nationwide.
  • EPA has identified six major pathways by which UIC wells can lead to ground water contamination, including faulty casing, an inadequate confining layer, and the presence of nearby wells that were not properly plugged.
  • Colorado does not collect information on the depth of ground water in the area surrounding the injection zone. Needless to say, this makes it much harder to protect the ground water.
  • Neither EPA nor states monitor groundwater quality over time to detect contamination from Class II wells.
  • New risks to ground water have emerged, including induced seismicity, overpressurization of formations, and the use of diesel fuel in fracking. Overpressurization is when too much waste is injected into a disposal well, causing pressure to increase to unsafe levels and the waste to back up onto the surface.
  • When it comes to diesel fracking, EPA may not have the chemical disclosure information it needs to ensure that UIC permits are being issued as required by law.
  • EPA does not consistently conduct annual on-site reviews of state programs due to insufficient resources, although these annual reviews have been identified as key to ensuring protection of drinking water sources.
  • EPA is not consistently incorporating new state rules into federal regulations as required. Without doing this, EPA cannot enforce all rules adopted by states to protect groundwater pursuant to federal law.
  • EPA is collecting data, but not enough to meet all requests from Congress and the public.

GAO also provides, in Appendix IV, a very helpful compilation of regulations from the eight state programs it reviewed.

GAO has made common sense recommendations to ensure that EPA oversight of the Class II program can effectively protect drinking water sources. As GAO points out, there will be ever increasing amounts of wastewater as oil and gas production increases. In addition to these recommendations, the oil and gas industry should be required to safely recycle all of its wastewater and manage all residual waste according to hazardous waste guidelines, thereby decreasing the demand for fresh water while also reducing the waste stream. There are many things the industry can do to reduce its environmental impacts, and they are often cost effective, but they will not happen without government action.

Source: National Resources Defense Council

The Proposed Bay Delta Conservation Plan Is the Wrong Approach for California

By Kate Poole

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Kate Poole, Senior Attorney, San Francisco

As California struggles to respond to one of the worst droughts in generations, we need to do more than shorten our showers and turn off the faucet while brushing our teeth.

California’s water system is broken:

  • The San Francisco Bay- Delta – the largest estuary on the West Coast, which serves as the main switching yard for most of our surface water supply – is suffering an ecological collapse.
  • We’re draining groundwater aquifers around the state at a rate faster than nature can replenish them, causing the land above over-drafted aquifers to collapse and wiping out these natural water storage reservoirs for all time.
  • And more than 80% of our 121 native fish species are on a path to extinction, taking fishing jobs and the livelihoods of fishermen’s families with them, if we don’t do a better job of managing our rivers and streams in the face of myriad threats.

We need long-term, effective responses to these hard challenges. The good news is that we have the solutions to provide water for a growing population and economy while restoring healthy rivers, fisheries, and aquifers. The bad news is that the state is not embracing these solutions in its proposed Bay Delta Conservation Plan, instead falling back on the failed approaches of the last century that rely on taking more and more water out of our natural systems to feed a boundless demand for more water.

The currently proposed (and inaptly named) Bay Delta Conservation Plan or BDCP will neither “conserve” the Bay-Delta nor improve water supply reliability for California – the two goals it set out to achieve.

The plan proposed by the state’s Department of Water Resources would instead take more water out of the Delta than we do today, rather than reducing reliance on the Delta as directed by state law. That approach is contrary to the view of nearly every credible scientist who works in the Delta, who urge us to significantly increase the amount of fresh water flowing through the Delta to improve habitat for salmon and other fish, and reduce the influx of invasive plants, clams and other species.

More flow also improves water quality for farmers in the Delta and the millions of Californians who get some drinking water from Delta. In fact, the big dams, pumps, and canals that make up our current massive water infrastructure in the Delta were originally justified on grounds that they would preserve good water quality in the Delta and help repel saltwater intrusion:

From the Chief of DWR’s Bay Delta Office June 4, 2014 presentation to the Water Education Foundation (http://www.watereducation.org/sites/main/files/file-attachments/marshall_paul.pdf)

But the proposed BDCP ignores this science and these threats in an effort to slake the unquenchable thirst of water wholesalers in the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California with Delta water.

The proposed BDCP also fails to improve water supply reliability for California. Those portions of the state that are doing better in this drought are the areas that have diversified their water supply, so that they are not overly reliant on any one part of the system, including the Delta.

A recent study by NRDC, the Pacific Institute and Professor Bob Wilkinson from the University of California, Santa Barbara shows the enormous potential in California to create literally millions of acre-feet of new water supply through diversified investments in water recycling and reuse, improvements in water use efficiency, and capture and reuse of stormwater that we currently dump in the ocean. Here’s a graphic description of the water supply potential from these tools, which tend to be far more drought-proof than relying on water from the Delta, which, as we’re witnessing this year, simply does not have much water to provide when rain and snow levels are down:

To give you a sense of how much water 14 million acre-feet is, it’s enough water to fill Lake Shasta – California’s largest reservoir – more than three times over. And it’s more than all of the cities in California combined use today (which equals less than 10 million acre-feet of water annually).

For years, we’ve created a false tension between managing for healthy rivers and aquifers and managing for a healthy water supply. The standard thinking has been that we can take more and more water out of our rivers and groundwater basins without destroying them in the process. That’s a failed approach that has led us to the conflict-riddled water system that we have today. It should not be resurrected in the BDCP.

The state should go back to the principles embodied in the 2009 Delta Reform Act that recognize that a healthy water supply and a healthy Delta go hand-in-hand. Because Californians can’t have one without the other.

BDCP can be reconfigured to meet this original intent, but the state will need to have an open mind and be willing to consider alternative ideas that it has so far rejected.

Source: National Resources Defense Council

What we like - and don't like - about our cities

By Kaid Benfield

Seattle (by: Oran Viriyincy, creative commons)

Kaid Benfield, Special Counsel for Urban Solutions, Washington, DC

American city dwellers place a high value on their cities’ food offerings, from restaurants to farmers’ markets. We also love historic buildings and good public spaces. Traffic, not so much. These findings are from a new study released last week by Sasaki Associates, a Massachusetts-based design and planning firm.

The study, although limited to six cities, is rich with interesting findings that should help inform the agendas of urban planners and advocates. The findings should also matter to environmentalists, because successful cities are key to a sustainable future. To get the environment right, we need to create and maintain urban environments that people love.

Restaurants and food

In particular, restaurants and other sources of food are among the most popular aspects of city life, according to respondents in six major US cities:

“When we asked city residents what aspects of urban life enchanted them, food kept popping up in their responses. Eighty-two percent of urbanites appreciate their city’s culinary offerings.”

Restaurants were also ranked number one among a menu of items that would make residents visit a new part of their city, named by 46 percent of respondents, and number one among a different list of choices when asked to name “the most outstanding aspect of cities people love to visit.” (“Local attractions” ranked second.)

One thousand respondents participated in the survey from Austin, Boston, Chicago, New York, San Francisco, and Washington, DC. The study was conducted in May 2014.

Architecture and public spaces

City dwellers also place a high value on historic architecture. 54 percent agreed that, “to improve their city’s architectural character,” they “would like to see their city invest in renovating existing historical buildings to retain character while making them more useable.” Only 17 percent felt their city was too quaint and “would like to see more skyscrapers and iconic buildings.”

Similarly, 57 percent will “stop to admire buildings that are historic,” while 19 percent favor “buildings that are modern.” 38 percent admire buildings “that prominently feature public art or very unique design elements.”

Beyond buildings per se, urbanites love parks and other good public spaces. The study’s authors found that most people remember their favorite city experience taking place outdoors, either in a park or on a street. A park or street was named by 65 percent of respondents as the site of a favorite experience, with private buildings coming in a distant second at 22 percent. Government and civic buildings came in at a paltry 6 percent.

Waterfronts were named most popular among public spaces, with large parks coming in second. And substantial numbers of respondents wish their cities would make streets more friendly to cyclists and pedestrians, would support adding outdoor music and entertainment venues, and would like more small urban parks, “such as for visiting on lunch breaks.”

Transportation and parking

Not all is rosy in cities, however, according to the survey. A substantial plurality of respondents – 41 percent – cited traffic as first among city complaints. Yet most respondents are themselves contributing to that traffic, with 58 percent saying that they use cars most frequently among modes of transportation. (Half that many listed public transit.)

Not that I blame them. For many people, even in cities, convenient, comfortable, and clean alternatives to driving either don’t exist or don’t function in a way that meets their needs.

The study’s authors write:

“When we asked urban residents what they liked least about living and working in a city, traffic was the unsurprising winner.

“Breaking Americans of their car habit has been an ongoing battle. Transit-oriented development is the most-Seattle (by: Oran Viriyincy, creative commons)cited solution to encourage a less auto-centric society. (An anomaly, New York has the city-wide density to support a robust transit network.)

“However, the numbers (here and elsewhere) speak loud and clear: we are still auto-dependent. We need to plan and design differently—in a way that will enhance mobility options while still acknowledging our love for the automobile.”

The second-most-listed complaint was a lack of parking.

Staying put

Ultimately, the study provides great news, at least about the cities surveyed: 60 percent of respondents said they plan on living either where they do now or in a different part of the city. The portion who say they plan to move outside the city at some point, 34 percent, is also a large number. But what a welcome contrast to the situation a few decades ago when central cities were emptying out, suburbs seen as the overwhelmingly preferred domicile for those with a choice.

Not long ago, I listed some questions designed to elicit whether a city is environmentally and socially sustainable. Those questions remain important, regardless of the findings here. But we’ll have a much better chance of reaching sustainability if we provide its ingredients in a form that responds to people’s self-expressed needs, such as those reported here. As I have said before, if our solutions don’t work for people, they will never work for the planet.

Kaid Benfield writes about community, development, and the environment on Switchboard and in other national media. Kaid’s latest book is People Habitat: 25 Ways to Think About Greener, Healthier Cities. Today’s article was first published on the Huffington Post.

Related posts:

Source: National Resources Defense Council

New York City's History-Making Recycling Law Turns 25 Years Old (Part I)

By Eric Goldstein


Eric Goldstein, Director of NRDC’s New York City Environment, NY

New York City’s landmark recycling statute — which provided residents here with curbside collection of recyclables for the first time in modern history and generated momentum for stepped-up recycling in cities around the nation — is celebrating its 25th birthday this summer.

On July 14, 1989, the day the new law took effect, dozens of Sanitation Department trucks were rolling down city streets in 14 of the city’s 59 sanitation districts to collect metals, glass and newspapers placed at the curb by homeowners and building superintendents. Voluntary recycling collections, which had already begun in some neighborhoods, were now becoming mandatory citywide. These collections marked the beginning of a still-ongoing odyssey to transform the way residents of the nation’s largest city dispose of their trash on a daily basis.

The program has had its ups and downs over the past two and a half decades. For years, budget cuts, rule changes and suspensions of recycling collections confused residents and dampened participation. As a result of these factors and often tepid agency support for the program, recycling levels have not grown as quickly as envisioned. And, even twenty-five years later, the full objectives of the 1989 recycling statute have not yet been achieved.

Still, it would be best to characterize the implementation of the city’s landmark recycling law as a continuing work in progress. Today more than a quarter of the residential waste stream is being neatly placed out for recycling in some neighborhoods in all five boroughs. The city finally has an impressive, state-of-the-art recycling facility on the Brooklyn waterfront. And over the past two years the Bloomberg and de Blasio Administrations have been making up for lost time by launching, implementing and envisioning ambitious new programs to boost recycling and to compost food waste — the largest single component of the residential waste stream.

What follows — in two parts — is a look-back at the birth of the city’s recycling law, the trials and tribulations of its childhood and teenage years, and its recent, long-delayed coming of age.

New York City’s curbside recycling program began 25 years ago this summer, as New York City Sanitation Department trucks began fanning out to neighborhoods in all five boroughs to collect newspapers, metals, glass and plastic. Despite many stops and starts along the way, the program has survived, matured and is here to stay. Mayor de Blasio’s new Sanitation Commissioner, Kathryn Garcia, has expressed her determination to advance recycling and food waste composting — making waste collections here more sustainable and more cost-effective as well.

In the Beginning

Although the roots of recycling in New York City go back more than a century, the program’s current incarnation can be traced to the early 1980s. City landfills were closing and in 1984 Mayor Ed Koch advanced a proposal to build five giant garbage burning incinerators across the city. That possibility sparked environmental groups — including NRDC — into action; they vowed to advance more environmentally friendly recycling and waste prevention strategies as new cornerstones of city policy.

As community leaders in Williamsburg and groups like NYPIRG formed a united front to oppose the Koch Administration’s proposed Brooklyn Navy Yard incinerator (which was never built), other environmental advocates began meeting with sympathetic City Council representatives and their staffs to help design city legislation intended to jumpstart big-time recycling efforts here.

In 1987 and 1988, a handful of City Councilmembers, led by Ruth Messenger and Sheldon Leffler, began negotiating with the Koch Administration, environmental leaders and other stakeholders. They were determined to craft a comprehensive bill that would require the Sanitation Department to provide curbside collection of recyclables for New Yorkers in every neighborhood and regardless of whether residents lived in private homes or high-rise apartments (which were viewed as problematic due to real and imagined limitations on space for storing recyclables).

In March 1989, after nearly two years of contentious debate, the Council enacted Local Law 19 of 1989 — “the New York City Recycling Law.” It stated the City Council’s intent that “the measures taken by the city must establish the most environmentally sound and economically desirable waste reduction, recycling and reuse programs possible….”

The law was comprehensive. It covered everything from recycling by city agencies (including the public school system) and by commercial establishments, to the procurement of goods made with recycled content, the preparation of citywide recycling plans, the undertaking of public education activities, and the creation of citizen solid waste advisory boards.

The heart of the statute was a provision designed to thrust residential recycling collections forward citywide. It set forth a schedule for gradually increasing mandatory tonnage levels that the Sanitation Department was required to recycle over the next five years. It directed that at the end of the first year, the Department was to be recycling 700 tons per day and that by the end of the fifth year, the Department was to have reached a daily recycling level of 4,250 tons per day (equal to about 25 per cent of the estimated total residential and institutional waste that was expected to be collected by the Department that year).

Sheldon Leffler, who was Chairman of the Council’s Environmental Protection Committee and the bill’s leading shepherd, pronounced the statute “a strong beginning … not the end.” City Council Majority Leader Peter F. Vallone, proclaimed the new law to be “one of the most significant pieces of legislation in the history of the city.” And Mayor Koch’s Sanitation Commissioner, Brendan Sexton, who had tangled with the Council on the bill’s language for months but who eventually supported the legislation and ultimately became a great advocate for sustainable waste policies, told the New York Times: “We are going to recycle like crazy.”

Of course, there was no place to go but up in terms of New York City recycling. Although groups like the Environmental Action Coalition had begun voluntary recycling endeavors in the 1970s, the City was still recycling less than one percent of its daily trash in the late 1980s, before the new law was enacted.

Since the city’s recycling law took effect 25 years ago this summer, students and teachers have been pressing to have recycling collections implemented at their schools, as is evidenced by this 2008 rally on the steps of City Hall. For a very long time, the Department of Education was uncooperative. But with GrowNYC’s Recycling Champions program adding intensive recycling in individual schools, and the Sanitation Department now collecting lunchroom food scraps for composting at several hundred public schools, things are finally beginning to improve.

The 1990’s — Legal Wrangling Under Mayor Giuliani

By the spring of 1990, the City had succeeded in meeting the recycling law’s first year tonnage mandate. Blue recycling bins, distributed by the City, were a common site outside of private residences in all five boroughs. And the Sanitation Department was collecting at least 700 tons of recyclables per day.

Still, there were trouble spots on the horizon. They included ineffective efforts to educate the public regarding the details of recycling and its importance, lack of cooperation from many building managers and lack of attention from the city’s public school leadership.

Back in 1989, Commissioner Sexton predicted: “I think we will meet the law’s goals. But I also believe we have still some surprises to come, negative and positive.” On this second point, he was certainly correct.

When in 1991, the Department missed that year’s mandatory recycling tonnage number, NRDC brought suit to enforce the law on behalf of Councilmembers Sheldon Leffler and Fred Cerulo, the Citywide Recycling Advisory Board and concerned residents from Staten Island and the Bronx. (Michael Gerrard and the law firm of Arnold & Porter graciously provided pro bono legal assistance.) In response, the City’s lawyers argued that the statute’s tonnage mandates were non-binding “goals.”

But, beginning in 1992, one New York State court after another rejected that theory and ordered the city to comply with the tonnage directive and the other mandatory provisions of the recycling law.

The Giuliani Administration was no great friend of recycling and continued to drag its feet in implementing the statute. In 1996, the NRDC plaintiffs returned to court to enforce the pre-existing court order. This time, Mayor Giuliani’s lawyers argued that using construction and demolition debris to line the roads at the Fresh Kills landfill counted as residential recycling under the statute.

In 1997, the court rejected this argument of the Administration as well. And in 1998, the state’s highest court turned away the City’s last appeal. In total, seven separate court rulings had all gone against City Hall on the question of recycling tonnage deadlines. But as these legal matters made their way through the courts, valuable time was lost. Under revised court orders, the city was given until 2001 to meet the 4,250 tons per day recycling mandate.

Mayor Giuliani, who had called the city’s recycling law “absurd and irresponsible,” then sought to block funding that would have provided weekly (instead of every other week) recycling collections in all five boroughs. Once again, the City Council stepped in. In 1998, under the leadership of Environmental Protection Committee Chair Stanley Michels, the Council unanimously passed a new law directing the city to provide weekly recycling collections to every city neighborhood.

The concluding part of this blog will be posted on Switchboard tomorrow.

Source: National Resources Defense Council

Selifies and Civilization: two youths blog about interning at NRDC

By Pamela Rivera

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Pamela Rivera, Latino Engagement Associate / Program Assistant, Washington, D.C.

Guest blog by Maya Ward and Nick Bruce. Maya is an intern with Voces Verdes, she blends her love of Hispanic language and culture with the development of environmental policy. She is pursuing a Masters degree in Economics at Duke University, and ended up in the environmental field after first considering education and health care policy: a habitable environment forms the foundation for all other advancements in civilization.

Nick Bruce is an intern with Government Affairs and student at Amherst College. His interests include the conservation of lands and oceans and the development of a vibrant clean energy economy.

By interning at the NRDC, we’re grateful to be working at the cutting edge of the environmental movement. We’re also excited, and thankful, to be situated at the cutting edge of twenty-first century innovation. Innovation means phasing out the dirty energy economy of bygone centuries by building a sustainable and vibrant clean energy economy. It means reviving the world’s oceans; paying attention to and limiting the proliferation of toxic chemicals; and making sure that markets new and old, global and domestic, start green and stay green.

Love of the natural world takes many forms; whatever the shape, that ethos is built upon connections we’ve forged with nature. For Maya, that experience occurred in Patagonia at the southern tip of Argentina. The rich, aquatic blue of the glacial melt – along with the unfortunate sight of a large chunk of iceberg slipping into the sea – left her arrested by the beauty of her environment. In the grasp of beauty like the Patagonian landscape, we are momentarily situated amidst something far greater than ourselves: the forces and phenomena and beings of the natural world at large. During such moments, as Maya noted when experiencing the beauty of Patagonia, we are often compelled to describe our environment as panoramic, as worthy of a photograph or some other form of artistic encapsulation. The natural world, just like art, inspires a sense of presence, rooting us in the here and now, which lends tremendous meaning to our lives.

Similarly, my connection with the natural world arose from surfing in Chile. I volunteered with an international environmental and surfing non-profit, the Valpo Surf Project. My time in the Chilean surf cultivated an immense respect for the power and importance of our oceans. As wonderful as some of the experiences we share with nature are, we also encounter many not-so-pleasant ones. At one excellent surf spot in Chile, an oil company put a refinery on an estuary two hundred feet from the beach. The refinery leaked pollutants into the waves we surfed. More often than not, one of our friends would come down with pink eye a day or two later, the result of contaminated sea water. Riding a wave, or more likely, getting hammered by the wave when failing to catch it, reinforced an understanding of the relationship between liberty and limit: that we enjoy the fruits of a bountiful and beautiful world, but only insofar as we conserve that world.


The interest of the Chilean fisherman who wants to preserve the Pacific, so as to maintain the health of the sea bass, merges seamlessly with the interests of nautical sportsmen on each and every continent. The fisherman depends on the perpetuity of the sea bass to provide for his family; the sportsman depends equally on a healthy ecosystem to avoid sickness or grotesque interference of any variety.

Environmentalism as the Foundation of Civilization

Climate change today is both man-made (anthropogenic) and natural. Fossil fuel emissions, built up over the past two centuries, release carbon dioxide into our environment at a rate threatening to the vitality and perpetuity of our civilization. Emissions heat our planet and induce a threatening array of environmental, epidemiological and political phenomena. Temperature increases in the atmosphere melt polar ice caps, which in turn disrupts standard weather patterns.

The continuation of climate change will lead to unpleasant, dangerous and possibly anarchic consequences. It will lead to extreme weather like Hurricanes Sandy and Katrina, in specific parts of the world, on a frequent basis. It will lead to the flooding of our coastal communities and mass migrations inland to higher, safer ground. It will likely mean food shortages, if not famines, on account of heat-induced alteration of agricultural cycles. It will lead to rampant disease, like dengue fever and malaria, on account of the enlarged temperature zone in which lethal infections fester. It might mean wars fought over shortages of clean drinking water, as populations shed ineffective structures of governance and take political matters into their own hands.

The NRDC and the Twenty-First Century

We want to avert such outcomes, and intend to do so by defending our natural resources. Taking this path is on the one hand an act of creation: of innovation, development and collaboration. It is also an act of conservation: of maintaining a juridical landscape that upholds the integrity of our natural resources and, by extension, our own character. The Natural Resources Defense Council is walking this path as we speak. The NRDC is a diverse collection of departments and campaigns, with advocacy and on-going research projects. Here are some of the most recent NRDC projects, and successes:

On the other side of the world in Chile, the Council of Ministers—the country’s highest administrative authority— unanimously rejected the environmental permits for five dams on the Baker and Pascua rivers, which flow through the remote untouched rainforests and glaciers of southern Patagonia. NRDC worked for seven years with a coalition of local partners to protect Chile’s rugged Patagonia from those dams.

• Recently, the Environmental Protection Agency released their Clean Power Plan(click here for a summary). This plan sets standards for carbon pollution for existing power plants, with state-specific targets and a flexible path to reach those targets

• In Alaska, NRDC is waging an ongoing campaign against the Pebble Mine, a proposed copper and gold mine that would “spell disaster for the people, wildlife and ecosystem of Bristol Bay”, according to an EPA report. Recently, Rio Tinto, a mining conglomerate, gave its shares in the project to local charities, citing that “the risks of the project are too great and the opposition of the region’s residents too strong”.

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Our internship could not come at a more dynamic time in the environmental history of our nation. It is no coincidence that the Environmental Protection Agency and the NRDC both sprung to life in 1970, and that today, the NRDC actively supports the EPA’s new emission control standards. On this note, we ask that you first sign our petition to demonstrate your support for the EPA’s landmark decision to reel in carbon emissions. Next we ask for your perspective: what’s your environmental story? And how can we live simultaneously as individuals while acting in harmony to build our sustainable civilization of the twenty-first century?

Source: National Resources Defense Council