The Environment & the East End’s State Senate Race

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While State Senator Kenneth LaValle, a Republican, was long known as a bipartisan champion on environmental issues, little is known about the environmental stances of the two candidates running to replace Mr. LaValle when he retires at the end of this year after 43 years on the job.

Mr. LaValle’s First Senate District comprises the entire East End, along with portions of Brookhaven Town as far west as Port Jefferson and Shirley.

While Mr. LaValle was a high scorer in the New York League of Conservation Voters’ 2018 scorecard on environmental issues, scoring 92 percent, North Fork State Assemblyman Anthony Palumbo, a Republican who is running with Mr. LaValle’s blessing, received a score of just 62 percent that year, based on the legislators’ position on 13 key pieces of environmental legislation.

In 2019, there was less of a spread between Mr. LaValle, who scored 76 percent on the scorecard, and Mr. Palumbo, who scored 67 percent.

Mr. Palumbo’s Democratic challenger, Laura Ahearn, the founder and director of the Crime Victims Center, has long been known for her advocacy on behalf of abused women and children and other crime victims, but not for her environmental views.

The New York League of Conservation Voters looked to clarify both candidates’ positions on the environment in a Zoom debate moderated by RiverheadLocal journalist and publisher Denise Civiletti on Sept. 16.

One of the most consequential pieces of environmental legislation to pass the New York State Legislature in the 2019-2020 session was the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA), which sets ambitious goals for meeting carbon reduction standards.

Mr. Palumbo voted for that legislation.

Ms. Civiletti asked both candidates what bills they would support to help meet the goals of the CLCPA.

Mr. Palumbo said the state needs to encourage businesses, individuals, municipalities and school districts to invest in renewable energy, adding that he had recently installed solar panels on his own house and has been on the Environmental Conservation Committee for seven years.

“As far as our ultimate goal of 100 percent renewable… that is certainly something that is laudable and we will get there some day in the near future, hopefully sooner rather than later,” he added.

Ms. Ahearn said she would like to see polluters pay for the pollution they cause, particularly for carbon emissions, and said she supports low carbon fuel standards.

Mr. Palumbo said he’s looking into buying a Tesla at the urging of his son, and he’s excited about the prospect of powering it from the solar panels at his house. Ms. Ahearn said she plans to buy a Prius after driving a ‘big old Jeep’ for many years.

On their priorities for coastal resiliency against rising sea levels on Eastern Long Island, Ms. Ahearn expressed dismay that a vote on the $3.4 billion Restore Mother Nature Bond Act, floated as a public ballot referendum by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo earlier this year, will no longer be on the November ballot as the state deals with the financial fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic.

“There’s so much that we have to do, but unfortunately without the money, we’re not going to be able to do a lot,” she said.

Mr. Palumbo pivoted when asked about coastal resiliency priorities, instead discussing the new provision in the Community Preservation Fund law allowing the five East End towns to spend up to 20 percent of their CPF revenue on water quality products.

“That now gives us a war chest,” he said. “We can do what we need to do as far as sea walls. That’s the right idea. We’re running out of land to buy, but we can use the money for other environmentally sound priorities.”

When asked if they use reusable bags at the grocery store, Mr. Palumbo said he does, but he often leaves them in the car and ends up walking out of the store with his arms filled with groceries, or running out to the car to get the bags. Ms. Ahearn said she has been a proud longtime user of reusable shopping bags.

Ms. Civiletti asked the candidates what they would do as state legislators about the neonicotinoid pesticide coating placed on seeds that has proven to be toxic to honeybees, which are necessary to pollinate many crops.

Mr. Palumbo said he supports legislation like his fellow Assemblyman Steve Englebright’s Birds and Bees Protection Act, but any action “needs to be balanced with the farming industry. We’re the fourth largest farming county in the state.”

Ms. Ahearn said she supports a moratorium on the use of neonicotinoids, which she said are in all kinds of products, including dog collars.

On offshore wind, Ms. Ahearn said she wants to make sure the South Fork Wind Farm, a 15-turbine project 30 miles offshore from Montauk, gets done, and she’s also excited about the Sunrise and Empire wind projects that are also just gearing up. She added that more must be done to address high electric energy use on the South Fork at a time when energy use on the rest of Long Island is declining.

“That’s probably related to the fact that you have a lot of folks moving out to the South Fork,” she said.

“I think the Montauk project is going in the right direction, and I support it,” said Mr. Palumbo.

On transportation infrastructure in the First Senate District, Mr. Palumbo said he supports extending the pilot South Fork Commuter Connection project, an eastbound commuter train on the South Fork that began operation last year, but was paused this year during the pandemic. He added that he would like to see more ‘last mile’ solutions like bicycles to get commuters from public transportation hubs to their ultimate destinations.

Ms. Ahearn said she was “stunned to learn the transportation sector is responsible for 36 percent of our emissions.”

She added that she hopes money from the Volkswagen diesel scandal be used to support the electrification of transit infrastructure, adding that Long Island Rail Road trains on eastern Long Island are still using diesel. She said she would also support a low carbon fuel standard.

In his closing statement, Mr. Palumbo said the environment is a straightforward issue that lawmakers can agree on, regardless of political party.

“This is the most environmentally sensitive district” in the state, he said. “It has to be the issue at the forefront of your mind because we’re drinking from a sole source aquifer.”

“Our carbon footprint is always a concern,” he said, reiterating that he had voted for the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act.

Ms. Ahearn said in her closing statement that her work as a victims advocate translates well toward protecting the environment, which she likened to a voiceless victim.

“We need fierce activists like me in the fight against climate deniers and those who would harm our environment,” she said. “I’m not seeking a political promotion. I’m looking to follow the science. I will be in the majority as a Democrat. I will not be earning a ‘D’ for defending what’s most vulnerable — our environment.”

Beth Young

Beth Young has been covering the East End since the 1990s. In her spare time, she runs around the block, tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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