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‘Show the Connection Between Our Environment and Our Lives’: A Q&A with Michelle Hinchey

The Democratic state Senate candidate for the 46th district discusses our interconnected crises, environmental policy fixes, and her father’s legacy.

Democratic candidate Michelle Hinchey is running for state senate in the 46th district on a progressive environmental platform.
Photo courtesy of Hinchey for NY
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Democrat Michelle Hinchey is running for state Senate in the 46th district, which encompasses parts of Ulster, Albany, and Schenectady counties, and all of Greene and Montgomery counties. The race is considered tight with Republican George Amedore, who has held the seat since 2014, set to retire at the end of the year. Hinchey is facing Republican Richard Amedure, a former state trooper and police union official from Albany County.

The 33-year-old was born and raised in Saugerties and went on to attend the Industrial and Labor Relations School at Cornell University. Afterward, she worked as a communications executive and was part of the anti-fracking movement in New York. She is the daughter of the late Maurice Hinchey, a 10-term Hudson Valley congressman remembered for his progressivism and dedication to protecting the environment.

Hinchey was interviewed by Roger Hannigan Gilson on September 16. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

What do you like about nature and the outdoors—what attracts you?

Everything. I think growing up in upstate New York, in such an environmentally friendly area, you just see how important it is. I think you take it for granted, especially as a kid, the luxury we have to be outside and to go hiking and to swim in fresh water and to breathe clean air. That’s always been instilled in me. I think the deep connection to our planet and to nature is so profoundly important. It’s a critical part of our economy, it’s a critical part of our life. When you’re out in nature, there’s something just so calming and resetting about it.

The Restore Mother Nature Bond Act (which would have allowed the state to issue $3 billion in bonds to fund the rehabilitation of state environments) was pulled from November’s ballot by Robert Mujica, Governor Cuomo’s budget director, due to budget shortfalls from the pandemic. Was this prudent?

I am disappointed that they decided to pull the bond act from the ballot this year. I think, especially in a public health crisis, our environment and our health are so inextricably linked that it’s profoundly important that we are investing in both of those things to make sure we are as healthy as we can be, and that we’re protecting our environment.

I understand that we are in a daunting budget crisis, but I don’t think we can run on an austerity budget, and we also need to be investing for our future. We can’t let ourselves get into a hole we can’t get out of, and I think that the bond act would have been a really great step in the right direction, as our state looks to lead on climate change issues and looks to be the leader in our country in shifting to renewables and stepping out and protecting our environment. This would have been something that really did that.

General Electric began the court-ordered dredging of the upper Hudson River in 2001 to clean the millions of pounds of carcinogenic PCBs it had dumped there from the 1940s to the 70s. The federal EPA issued a certification of completion for the project last year, leading New York to sue, arguing GE had not done enough.

Has GE done enough to clean up the Hudson River?

No. (laughs) I think they should be cleaning up all the PCBs. I know they’ve been let off the hook a little bit. It’s interesting—my father had been in office so long, and so long ago, and we’re still fighting a number of issues that he was fighting back in the 1980s, the 1990s, and the early 2000s, and this PCB dump was one of them. The fact that we’re letting GE off the hook—and yes, they’ve cleaned a lot of it, but not all of it—we need to hold them accountable. We have to hold corporate polluters accountable for what they do to our environment.

Do you think there should be efforts to mandate that GE also cleans the lower Hudson (south of Troy)?

Yes. I think the longer that they wait to clean it, the [tougher] it’s going to be. And so, we should give them reason to clean all of it, and to do all of it now, because it’s only going to get worse.

Do you have a way that this might be done, though? GE got the okay from the EPA, and the New York Department of Environmental Conservation—they were kind of overruled. Is there any kind of state mechanism that could compel GE to do further cleaning?

I think we have to look at what the state can do to hold them accountable, whether that’s removing corporate subsidies, whether that’s fines—there are a number of things we can probably do at the state level to to twist their arm and make sure they do it.

As we’ve said, protecting our natural resources is profoundly important. The Hudson is not only one of our most important waterways, but it’s the lifeblood of our economy. And just because one group says, “Okay, it’s fine”—we need to make sure that it actually is fine.

The Hudson River is expected to rise between two and 4.5 feet by the end of the century due to climate change. Certain waterfronts, such as Athens’s, are going to be threatened. What can be done to prevent tidal and storm flooding in those communities, and how can the state help these municipalities prepare?

One reason why it’s so critically important to have more upstate voices in the majority conference is to talk about these things, and to fight for them. We can bring back funding to our district to build up our river walls and to work on flooding infrastructure, storm drainage, things like that. It obviously costs money. We need a piece of the pie and if upstate voices are not in the room, we’re not talking about those things.

Credit: NOAA
L: The current Hudson River shoreline off Athens. R: The shoreline with four feet of sea-level rise.

The west bank of the Hudson between Kingston and Catskill was once the center of the American cement industry. Now it’s mostly vacant, and it’s beautiful, in a post-apocalyptic way. Would you like to see parts of this land turned into state parks, as was done with the chunk of land north of Kingston, or is it better to put them to human uses, such as commercial waterfront development, or workforce housing or something like that?

I think it’s a mix of both. We need state land, and we need to have open spaces, but we also need to safely turn [the land] into waterfront dining, and to expand restaurants and build housing. There’s a lot of things we can do. Our community has become pretty centered on tourism, so what are things that we can put on and next to our waterfronts that are safe and that people really enjoy? They could be parks, they could be pedestrian parks, they could be bike trails, it could be restaurants, it could be performance spaces, and we would work with all of them to make sure that we’re protecting the water.

How can the state better address Lyme disease?

That’s a critical issue here in our communities. I think we need more funding to address it. I think education, awareness is huge. Working with local municipalities and groups and knowing what people should look for and working with our doctors and healthcare facilities on training people and showing people how to recognize it early. It’s one of those tricky diseases that doesn’t always manifest the same way. Everyone knows to look for a bullseye, but not everyone is going to get a bullseye, and not everyone knows that. So, making sure people know what to really look for and what the signs are.

This summer, Kaaterskill Clove (which includes Kaaterskill Falls and Route 23 in Greene County) has been rather overrun and trashed. Has it become interminably overrun? Should it be closed to the public at some point?

This is a personal issue for me. I grew up swimming at Fawn’s Leap and Rathole in Kaaterskill Clove, and so for me, when I was there, 10 people felt crowded. This year, especially because of COVID, we’re seeing over 100 people, which is far too high a usage for that space at a single time. Not to mention that we don’t have the infrastructure. You see people literally walking along a very dangerous road, climbing down into a gorge, and oftentimes it’s people who are not as familiar with the outdoors as those of us who grew up here.

I don’t think we should close it forever to the public—I think it’s an incredible natural resource that we have, but we do have to change things: Build up infrastructure and designate some of these spaces differently, which would open up funds on the state level. Measures that won’t change the beauty of the area, but be able to serve people: Build a parking lot so the cars aren’t on the side of the road, and possibly build stairs so our forest rangers aren’t being called every few hours to rescue someone.

The people who are coming to see it are also not going anywhere. If anything, it’ll increase. We’re seeing this with so many of our natural resources all over the state during the pandemic. It’s happening at Peekamoose Blue Hole—it’s happening at a number of swimming holes—it’s happening at North-South Lake. People are going to continue to come, word is going to continue to spread. We need to figure out how we can all work together to protect the resources while making it safe for people, whether that’s a permit system like they do at Blue Hole, capping it per day, while also increasing stewards and forest rangers in the area to steward the land and tell people that if they don’t have a permit they need to come back the next day or apply for one. Also, making sure there’s trash receptacles. Right now, there’s a lot of garbage around, and that’s not okay. I’ve been looking at if we can change the designation to bring some funds to build some of these things. People would be a lot safer, and the natural environment around them will be much better protected.

How would the designation be changed?

At the state level. Right now, it’s designated as wilderness, and I think the next level we could change it to would be intensive usage, which is what they did with Kaaterskill Falls. Kaaterskill Falls has that lookout deck and steps with handrails. That’s all there because [the state] changed the designation to intensive usage because of how many people came to see the falls.

You think there should be more funding for a lot of these things. Do you think it should come from the state General Fund, or is there any kind of way to create additional revenue? All these ideas need funding. Where would the funding come from?

Back to Kaaterskill Clove—we could charge a parking fee. You could have shuttles from a parking lot, and the ticket is five dollars, or something like that. I think there’s a revenue creator there, as well as the parking tickets.  I think a lot of the money that’s charged for tickets and other things at North-South Lake goes into the General Fund, as opposed to a fund for our natural resources and parks. If we shifted that, we’d have a lot more money for these maintenance things. That money should go back into maintaining our natural resources.

You mentioned New York being a leader in environmental issues. Is there anything else New York can do to lead the way?

Yes, I think there’s a lot. One thing that I’m personally passionate about is implementing restrictions on packaging but putting the onus on the producers of the packaging to be responsible for it. We have far too much trash. How many times have you ordered something tiny that comes in a massive box or has an exorbitant amount of plastic? I think that is something we overlook sometimes, and something I’m really interested in. I know Germany has actually done a couple of interesting things on it that I’ve been looking at to see if we could replicate in New York.

I also think that any new, large-scale development should be running on renewables. And any new infrastructure that we’re building should also be renewable. It’s one thing to pass the CLCPA (Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, which aims for net-zero carbon emission in the state by 2050)—which is great—but now we actually have to hit the standards that are set forth in the plan. So how do we work with our municipalities and our local governments to make sure they also have the tools and the resources they need to transition to renewables? We shouldn’t be building any pipelines, whether big or small, because we’re saying that we want to be fully renewable and that we’re transitioning. Why are we still building this infrastructure?

You would be in favor of a state law requiring new larger developments, whether commercial or residential, to be powered by renewable energy?

Yes. And there’s a lot that needs to go into that, but we need to start shifting in that direction.

What concerns you most about the future of the environment?

I’m nervous that we’ve devalued it. We live in a society right now—not necessarily ours [locally], but especially on the national level down—where we’ve kind of devalued our environment and our natural resources. You see the opening up of large swaths of federally protected land for drilling. We’ve moved away a little bit from recognizing and remembering how important our land is, and how fragile our climate and our planet are. We’re seeing all over this district, and in the state in general, illegal toxic dumping that my dad fought against back in the 90s and the 80s, and I think that’s happening again. I think people have forgotten how it affects their lives, and other people are so profit-driven they don’t care. I mean, we see the fires happening in California, we see weather patterns dramatically changing, we see these hurricanes being stronger than ever, coming at different times, popping up in different locations—we’ve got to make a real change, because if we don’t, it’s only going to continue to get worse.

We all know that with everything going on, sometimes it’s easy to forget about the environment. It’s not the thing that’s in front of your face all the time, because it’s a slower progression into disaster. But then you see the results, and you recognize it, and at that point it’s too late. If we ruin our ecosystem, if we ruin our food supply, what do we have? I’m hopeful that people are waking up even more to it. Even though we’re inundated every which way with large crises, they’re all connected, and if we can protect our environment, we can work on everything else.

Because of the pandemic, I can see how it’s very difficult to make the argument, “Actually, we’ve got to focus on the environment right now.” Is there any kind of education or sea change that needs to happen for people to view the environment as something that needs to be addressed immediately?

People just need to believe the research and the science. If we’re looking to make healthier communities, if we’re looking at environmental justice, if we’re looking to bring people out of poverty: the environment is a core pillar in so many of these issues that we talk about every day, and I think sometimes we don’t talk about the environment enough as it relates to these other issues. We get very sidelined.

I think something that we really need to do—and many environmental advocates do this very well—is show the connection between our environment and our lives. If we don’t have our planet at the end of the day, all of these other crises are going to go away because we don’t have anywhere to live. So, I think there’s the bigger picture to put into perspective. Again, there’s going to be things that pop up, like the pandemic, that suck all the air out of the room and that we need to deal with immediately, but that doesn’t mean the environment should drop to priority number seven. It should still be involved. We talk so much about building back better and building back stronger and looking at the issues that the pandemic has unveiled. How do we address those issues while thinking about the climate crisis? When we talk about job creation, we should be looking at it through a green lens, we should be looking at it through green jobs, whether that’s retrofitting manufacturing, carbon capture innovation…we should be solving those issues through green job development. When we’re looking at how we’re building infrastructure, building in a way takes into consideration sea-level rise, or our river-level rise, or storms getting worse. We need to plan for the future, so we don’t have to go back and do it again in another 10 years and spend more money.

If elected, what is a bill you would like to author to address the environment?

Honestly, the packaging thing is very interesting to me and is one of the first things we should look into. I think it could be really innovative. If there is a way we can work with our natural resources and change some designations so our waterways and our resources are protected, it would be tremendously important.