As a community organizer—and, as of January, a Newburgh city council member—Giselle Martinez knows how tough it is for people who are struggling to make ends meet to get involved in government.
“We have families that work double shifts to put food on the table. They’re not going to have the luxury to attend meetings that are going to go for hours,” Martinez says. “When it comes to politics, when it comes to activism, sometimes it’s a privilege to take a part in that.”
This spring, New Yorkers across the state will have the chance to weigh in on the state’s emerging plans for taking climate action, in a series of important public hearings held by the state Climate Action Council (CAC) to discuss their draft scoping plan for decarbonizing the state economy. But if locals want to attend one of the three-hour meetings, they’ll have to travel a long way, or go online.
To the dismay of many local officials and residents, the CAC has no plans to hold a hearing in the Hudson Valley.
It’s not surprising to Martinez that Newburgh has been left out of New York State’s plans to gather public input on climate action, along with the Hudson Valley as a whole. But it is disappointing.
“We get left out a lot,” she says.
New York’s Big Plan for Climate
The CAC’s scoping plan, which is due to be finalized by the end of 2022, is a key piece of New York’s 2019 climate law, the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA). Clocking in at more than 300 pages plus technical appendices, the draft plan lays out several broad roadmaps for climate action, all aimed at the goal of eliminating fossil fuel use in New York’s electrical grid, electrifying heating systems and vehicles, and making the statewide economy almost entirely zero-emissions by 2050.
The CAC’s final scoping plan will guide the course of state climate action over the next few decades. Legislators will look to it to craft the laws that will turn state climate targets into concrete policy. State agencies will use it to shape regulation, steer spending, and decide what data to collect and how to report it. Major industries will look to it to understand how to invest and build infrastructure in the state. Ordinary New Yorkers, especially those living in communities on the front lines of climate and pollution impacts, will be profoundly affected by the plan, which will shape the decisions the state makes on local energy infrastructure and climate response.
More than 500 local elected officials and residents have signed a letter calling on the CAC to hold a hearing in the Hudson Valley on the draft scoping plan. Among those signing the letter are state and county legislators, mayors of cities and villages, town supervisors and council members, local nonprofit and faith leaders, volunteers on local climate action projects, and local business representatives.
A public hearing in New York’s Mid-Hudson region is “essential to a truly equitable process,” the letter states. “Our region, like others, has an enormous stake in the State’s plan to achieve the ambitious goals of the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, and deserves the opportunity to directly share our perspectives and concerns as part of the public comment process.”
New York’s climate law requires the CAC to hold six public hearings around the state to gather community input on the draft scoping plan. The CAC is already going beyond what the law requires, with a plan to hold 10 hearings throughout April and May. But for the Hudson Valley, and other places in New York that are far from where the hearings will be held, local leaders say the failure to hold hearings in the community will hurt public participation in New York’s most sweeping public policymaking process.
In-person hearings will be held in eight places across New York State: Albany, Binghamton, Buffalo, Syracuse, the Bronx and Brooklyn in New York City, Brookhaven on Long Island, and Tupper Lake in the Adirondacks. The CAC also has two virtual hearings scheduled, one on a Saturday morning to allow for participation by people who can’t make a late-afternoon weekday meeting. The CAC is also accepting written comments on the draft scoping plan from all New York State residents through June 10.
In a statement provided to The River, CAC co-chairs Basil Seggos (commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation) and Doreen Harris (president of NYSERDA) responded to the call for a Hudson Valley hearing. Seggos and Harris say the CAC is not planning to add any other public hearings, but will do outreach in communities to encourage people to participate.
“For locations where in-person hearings are not being held, State staff are planning to participate in various conferences and meetings throughout the extended public comment period to present on the Draft Scoping Plan and encourage public comment,” Seggos and Harris write in the statement. “Robust public outreach and engagement is being planned to ensure collaboration with various groups and stakeholders across the State, particularly among disadvantaged communities, to ensure increased participation and feedback as part of the process.”
Disadvantaged Communities: What’s In A Name?
Roughly a third of New York’s population lives in a “disadvantaged community,” a term that is important to the state’s climate law. The CLCPA requires that between 35 and 40 percent of the benefits of New York State’s investments in climate action and the clean energy transition must flow to disadvantaged communities. But before any concrete plans for guiding investments can be made, the state must define what a “disadvantaged community” is—a task that fell to the CAC’s Climate Justice Working Group.
On March 9, after a long and somewhat gnarly process, the group released a draft definition, along with a map of disadvantaged communities across the state. At the heart of the definition of “disadvantaged communities” is a formula that assigns each of New York’s 4,918 Census tracts a score based on dozens of factors. Some of those factors are related to environmental burdens, like flood risk or exposure to air pollution. Others have to do with the vulnerability of the local population: age, race, poverty, health problems.
Census tracts are drawn to be roughly similar in population, and each is home to an average of about 4,000 people. The Mid-Hudson region of New York is home to 242 Census tracts identified as “disadvantaged communities,” both urban and rural, and many of them are clustered along the banks of the rising Hudson River itself.
In their letter calling for a Hudson Valley hearing, local officials point out that the Mid-Hudson region has 45 percent of its Census tracts identified as “disadvantaged,” a rate greater than the state as a whole and on par with New York City.
The state climate council is aware that geography is a problem for getting people in disadvantaged communities to weigh in on the climate plan. CAC member Raya Salter, a clean energy advocate and attorney who signed the letter calling for a Hudson Valley hearing, raised the issue at a March 3 council meeting.
“I do think that we’ve missed an extremely important area in terms of hearing location, and that is the Mid-Hudson, and southern Westchester in particular,” Salter said at the meeting. “Southern Westchester has the highest percentage of disadvantaged communities outside of New York City in the entire state.”
Also calling for more geographic representation at the March 3 meeting was Ron Epstein, executive deputy commissioner of the state Department of Transportation. “I-90 is well covered, I-87 is covered, but the whole I-84, I-86, I-88 corridor has nothing,” Epstein said. “There’s a lot of manufacturing along that corridor that will be impacted by the scoping plan.”
Giving Environmental Justice a Seat at the Table
The Hudson Valley has plenty of examples of the kind of community New York’s climate planners need to hear from most in their public input process, but perhaps none more textbook than Newburgh.
The city of Newburgh, nestled alongside the more suburban Orange County town of Newburgh, has seven Census tracts. All of them score high on the state’s formula for identifying disadvantaged communities. Lying on the west bank of the Hudson River, the city is directly in the path of rising sea levels.
Newburgh’s highest-scoring Census tract, an area on the western side of the city, scores higher on the state’s formula than any other area outside of New York City, and ranks 11 out of the state’s 4,918 Census tracts for its combined score on environmental burdens and population vulnerability. In case that sounds too much like math without a human dimension: Newburgh is a place where pollution and environmental racism are killing people.
In a county where two-thirds of the population is white and non-Hispanic, Newburgh is a mostly Black and brown city, with a long history of industrial pollution from which it is beginning to recover. Newburgh’s rate of emergency room visits for asthma, a disease often caused or worsened by air pollution from burning fuels, is more than double the statewide average, and more than triple that of Orange County, according to a 2017 report by the state health department. Low birthweight for infants is a particular problem in Newburgh, compared to both the state as a whole and the surrounding county. And then there’s the most obvious of Newburgh’s environmental justice problems: the contamination of the city’s main drinking water source with toxic firefighting chemicals from the nearby Stewart Air National Guard base, discovered in 2016 and still without a permanent solution.
Newburgh is also on the front lines of the battle for New York’s climate and energy future. The local Danskammer power plant, a gas-fueled “peaker” plant that runs occasionally when demand for electricity is high, is seeking to reinvent itself and rebuild as a larger, more modern plant that would run almost continuously. When the state Department of Environmental Conservation denied Danskammer a permit for that project in October of 2021, citing the state’s new climate law, it was a surprising reversal for the agency, and a sign of things to come in New York; Scenic Hudson’s Hayley Carlock called it “a real wake up call for the whole energy industry.”
The Newburgh environmental and community organizations that were active in the fight to stop Danskammer’s rebuilding will be calling on local residents to participate in New York’s climate action process this spring—and so will local voices in industry and energy. But without a local hearing, it will be an uphill battle to get public participation, Martinez says.
“When it comes to climate, there has to be equity. There has to be accessibility,” Martinez says.
“If we’re the ones that are suffering the most from this, if we’re the ones who are paying the consequences of what’s going on in our surroundings, our voices have to be at that table.”