With the legislative session just three weeks away, advocates, legislators and business owners filled Mather Hall at Trinity College on Wednesday for the Connecticut League of Conservation Voters 2020 Environmental Summit to settle on an environmental agenda for the February 5 start of session.
“We got all the advocates and lawmakers in one room where everybody can hear the same thing about what we know the main drivers are going to be for environment and energy legislation this year,” said Lori Brown, executive director of the League. “It’s the whole environmental community in one room.”
From a bottle bill to banning pesticides to new sources of funding for land preservation, many of the priorities are second efforts at legislation that did not pass in 2019.
Updating the bottle bill
Connecticut’s bottle bill, adding a 5 cent deposit to most beverage containers, was passed in 1978 and first implemented in 1980. The bill was modified slightly between 2008 and 2010, but the redemption value and the type of beverage containers accepted — apart from adding water bottles in 2009 — has remained the same.
Environmental advocates, like Louis Burch, the Connecticut Program Director for the Citizens Campaign for the Environment, are calling for the bill to be updated to include non-carbonated beverages as well as wine and liquor bottles and to increase the handling and redemption fees.
“By expanding the bottle bill to include non-carbonated beverages we could increase recycling of single-serve beverage containers by 200 million,” Burch said. “The problem with glass is, most of the glass you put in the blue bin is not recycled. It gets smashed up and literally falls through the cracks. 60% of the glass comes from wine and liquor bottles, by putting a deposit on them we can get it out of the blue bin.”
Last year the Bottle Bill (HB 7294) passed the House but was not called in the Senate.
“It is always a challenge when a major stakeholder on the issue is unwilling to negotiate and work with us,” Burch said. “It is disappointing to see when Coca-Cola has the ‘Every Bottle Back’ program, and yet pushes against this bill. If you were genuine about this intention, there is no better way to do that than put a refundable deposit on every bottle you create. They are not being good actors on this.”
Burch and other advocates plan to capitalize on what they see as a surge in support to create a sense of urgency on the issue for legislators in 2020.
A 1% fee on property purchases
The only consistent source of public funding for land conservation in Connecticut is the Community Investment Act, enacted in 2005 to preserve farmland, conserve open space, fund historic preservation and afforable housing.
Those efforts are supported by millions of dollars of fees levied on land recordings at the local level.
“The problem with the fund is that it is an attractive source of funding when legislators are seeking to close the budget gap. It gets raided and cut frequently,” said Amy Paterson, the executive director of the Connecticut Land Conservation Council.
During the 2019 legislative session one bill introduced by the legislature’s Environment Committee would have restored recent funds taken from the program account. Another proposal would have effectively ended the program by transfering revenues to the general fund.
According to Paterson, other bonded funds – including the Recreation and Natural Heritage Trust Program and the Recreational Trails and Greenways Program — are nearly out of funding.
“I want to emphasize the need to protect and enhance existing programs,” Paterson said. “In addition, there are opportunities for new funding sources that will give towns another tool to raise funding that won’t impact the mill rate.”
Paterson said that funding would come from offering towns the option of levying a conveyancing fee of up to 1 percent on the purchase of a property worth in excess of $150,000.
“We are trying to get legislators to pass a bill that would enable towns to place this limited fee on sales. It would give towns the right, but not require them,” Paterson said. “Legislators are supportive of the concept, but there is big push back from realtors. They think it would hurt property sales. Experience in other states shows that people and businesses are attracted to a community more if there is open land, farm land, clean air and water. It should increase local property values.”
Ending fossil fuel expansion
A portion of taxes on utilities in Connecticut is designated for new natural gas infrastructure and development. But since Gov. Ned Lamont signed an executive order on September 9 targeting reductions in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, advocates are hoping that this session will produce real changes in that law.
“Connecticut is theoretically on a path to cleaner energy, but there are a lot of policies expanding fossil fuels, specifically fracked gas,” said Samantha Dynowski, the state director of the state’s Sierra Club chapter. “At this time our goals are pointing us in the clean energy direction and renewables are abundant and yet we are still building fossil fuel powered plants.”
Dynowski said that removing this funding for new gas infrastructure is important even if the State Department of Energy and Environmental Protection has said that no new pipelines will be built.
“It’s still on the books so as we move to renewables, gas companies could still have gas shipped through us up to Canada and overseas if they want to,” Dynowski said.
We need to put as much effort getting off gas as we put into expanding clean energy, she said.
In the meantime, existing gas pipeline infrastructure in Connecticut is aging, and more than 1,000 leaks have been reported and gone unrepaired in the state, because companies are only required to repair leaks that are imminently hazardous or prone to exploding, said Dynowski.
The gas leaking from these pipelines is twice as damaging to our climate as carbon dioxide, according to the National Academy of Sciences.
“We need to strengthen our leaks detection, reduction and eventually reduce it down to zero,” Dynowski said. “We need a long-term plan to retire the whole system.”
A ban on chlorpyrifos
“It was, and is, one of the top priorities of the Environment Committee, but we are up against some tough opposition,” said environmental activist Tara Cook-Littman.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency propsed a rule to ban the pesticide in 2015, but the agency backtracked on the proposal in 2017. Since then several other states, including New York in 2019, have passed bans on the pesticide.
According to a freedom of information request by Cook-Littman last year, chlorpyrifos is currently being used on several golf courses, a pick-your-own berry farm and a few apple orchards in the state.
“I’m really concerned for the people who live around those golf courses or eat those apples or berries. I’m hoping this brings light to the fact that it’s still being widely used in Connecticut and it is important to halt the use of this chemical,” Cook-Littman said.
At each panel presentation at the summit, Brown said, she hoped there would be consideration of environmenal equity.
“Let’s think about who’s not at the table when we are thinking about these policies,” Brown said. “Sometimes we need to take a step back and ask who is using this system and who is benefiting.”
From the Connecticut 2030 plan which includes funding for commuter rail updates and the expansion of roads and highways but not inner-city bus systems, to locating waste facilities in disadvantaged communities, advocates pointed toward inequities that they say legislators should keep in mind as they head into session.