Connecticut League of Conservation Voters Sets an Environmental Agenda in Hartford

in In the Region

The 2019 regular session of the Connecticut General Assembly adjourned on June 5 with the behind-the-scenes bipartisan Connecticut League of Conservation Voters — a legislative watchdog on environmental issues —  tallying a number of victories.

Now with just four months until the next session convenes on February 5th, 2020, CTLCV Executive Director Lori Brown and Deputy Director Amanda Schoen, sat down at our office on Friday to highlight what they say are key issues for the environment and the next legislative session.

“A Waste Crisis”

More than a decade ago when cities and towns in Connecticut began to move to single stream recycling, the idea was that it would increase public participation and ease recycling of everything from paper to glass to plastic.

But, according to Brown, it didn’t quite pan out that way…

“So much of it ends up being contaminated,” said Brown. “If you put an oil can and a can of food in the same bin you can’t now have the uncontaminated product for making new food cans. And forget paper. You can no longer do white paper at all if you put anything else with it.”

In practice, the single stream approach fosters among the public a kind of “wishful recycling,” throwing anything and everything into the recycling bin and hoping somehow it will end up in the right place.

“We definitely have to get rid of single stream,” Schoen said. “It’s one of the big things on everybody’s mind right now. Everyone is dealing with the waste crisis. Almost every time I meet with legislators they say, ‘what are we going to do about this,’ because towns are cash-strapped.”

“We were sold a bill of goods with single stream, that this would make things better and easier,” said Schoen. “While it’s easy to toss things into one bin, it just doesn’t work at the end of the day.”

Instead of being paid for recyclables, according to CTLCV staff, towns are facing increasing costs of waste disposal, as China reduces its purchases of recycled materials, what Schoen describes as a “waste crisis.” 

“They did us a favor frankly by not taking our waste anymore,” Brown said. “Of course, the reaction is we have to get rid of the recycling program because we aren’t making money anymore, we’re losing.” 

Instead, CTLCV is advocating for a series of small fixes and a move away from single stream recycling and toward separating recyclables. 

“We definitely have to get rid of single stream,” Schoen said. “It’s one of the big things on everybody’s mind right now. Everyone is dealing with the waste crisis. Almost every time I meet with legislators they say, ‘what are we going to do about this,’ because towns are cash-strapped.”

The group is also once more supporting a bottle bill, with higher redemption fees, which failed to pass at the end of session.

“The bottle bill has not been updated for more than 30 years. There have been a couple little tweaks, but the deposit is the same. The way that the money has been distributed, it has not kept up. It’s as if you are being paid a 1970s rate in 2015. As a result, [redemption centers] are going under, every year there are more going under,” Brown said.  

And while once the revenues from bottle deposits were divided between haulers, redemption centers and distributors, as of 2003, the revenues are taken entirely by the state, which hasn’t used the money to better the environment.

Brown explained the failure of the bill in the last session.

“The opposition is so strong. We don’t have the Speaker [House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz (D-Berlin)] on board with any of this. It’s almost ideological why he opposes,” Brown said. “We figured out a way to increase the fee, expand the types and everybody would get something, but the leadership in the house doesn’t want it.

Sweeps and the ‘Municipal Option’

Although Brown expressed confidence that the political dynamic in Connecticut would protect revenues from a recently-passed bill adding a $5 fee to boat registrations — a CTLCV priority — to pay for combating invasives introduced into Connecticut lakes and rivers, she readily acknowledged the problems caused by the legislature’s habit of ‘sweeping’ earmarked revenues into the general fund.

“The money gets swept,” Brown said. “Passport to the parks, a perfect example of how they managed to sweep special fee money. In the very first minute that it passed [State] Senator Cathy Osten [D-Sprague] proposed a sweep for like half of it. It’s a challenge to keep the money in there for the environment.”

One solution to the problem, which failed to pass in the last session — the so-called ‘municipal option’ — would have allowed towns “to impose a conveyance tax on certain real property sales in order to generate funds for the preservation of open space.”  Basically adding a percent or a fraction of a percent to real estate purchases which would be protected from state sweeps at the municipal level.

“It makes sense. If you’re moving to Old Lyme, part of that is probably because you like the character of Old Lyme. So, it makes sense to pay a little bit to help maintain that character of Old Lyme,” Schoen said. “You’re letting towns levy the state if they want to do it.”

According to Brown, many towns across Connecticut “begged” the state to let them be a part of the pilot for a municipal option. Bill co-sponsors included State Sen. Heather Somers (R-Groton) and House Rep. Kate Rotella (D-Stonington), but their support failed to win over strong opposition from the real estate industry.

Energy

Brown underscored the importance of prioritizing a shift to zero-carbon energy as part of the organization’s overall approach — priorities that directly concern the potential of an offshore wind project by Ørsted based out of New London’s State Pier, and the eventual shuttering of the Millstone nuclear power station in Waterford. 

“We just saw the quorum on Tuesday about zero carbon in 2040, and yet a couple weeks ago they just approved the Killingly frack gas power plant which would be operational past 2040,” Schoen said.

“If Millstone were to close now our carbon emissions would go off the charts because there is nothing to replace that. That’s why it is so important that we work on the offshore wind bill,” Schoen said. 

More than the problem of energy generation, moving forward Schoen emphasized the need to resolve the often sticky problems of energy transmission through New England. Schoen focused particularly on the need for new cables connecting offshore wind projects and crisscrossing the Long Island Sound.

“We have to take a look at these transmission lines to make sure we are not disrupting the coastal habitat,” Schoen said.

Schoen said that even as legislators embraced a 2040 state target for zero carbon energy, contrary projects continued to win the support. 

“We just saw the quorum on Tuesday about zero carbon in 2040, and yet a couple weeks ago they just approved the Killingly frack gas power plant which would be operational past 2040,” Schoen said.

State Water Plan

Schoen explained that the recently approved State Water Plan adds an additional hurdle to companies that might in the future redirect or monetize Connecticut’s water resources in a way that would be contrary to the public interest.

“You could kill deals with that. Does this merger and shipping all this water from Connecticut out of state somewhere else to go across the country benefit the public of Connecticut? Probably not. You could kill business deals with this.”

“The water utility companies right now they have grandfathered-in rights to more water than exists in this state. We know that water is as valuable as gold, in many respects. The idea that water is a “public trust,” and that what we do with our water needs to benefit the public’s best interest first and foremost was threatening to them,” Schoen said. “You could kill deals with that. Does this merger and shipping all this water from Connecticut out of state somewhere else to go across the country benefit the public of Connecticut? Probably not. You could kill business deals with this.”

In testimony opposing the “public trust” portion of the plan, Kathryn Dube, the legislative director for the Connecticut Council of Small Towns, warned that “the misapplication of the public trust doctrine under the Plan could invite litigation regarding established water rights in ways that threaten the continued availability of water supplies needed to support existing businesses and new economic development initiatives.”

In Schoen’s view the plan merely reiterated existing legislation. Schoen said that “a lot of different industry interests have chipped away at that landmark law and this idea that water is a public trust is embedded there and they did not want it reiterated, they want to get rid of it.”