HARTFORD — Environment Committee Co-Chair State Sen. Rick Lopes, D-New Britain, anticipates a range of priorities for the upcoming legislative session, including addressing proper waste removal, prohibiting the release of helium balloons into the atmosphere, and dealing with the impacts of climate change.
Lopes told CT Examiner on Wednesday that he hopes the 34-member committee will successfully tackle these issues. The panel had a full plate in 2023, with 50 bills passing out of committee, half of which were signed into law by Gov. Ned Lamont.
Lopes, who represents New Britain, Berlin and parts of Farmington, believes the legislation will have a positive impact on the residents’ lives for years to come. He said he’s most proud of two bills — one regarding environmental justice and the other dealing with proper tire disposal.
“The [environmental justice] bill takes into account the fact that most of our polluting facilities are in dense cities, generally in poorer neighborhoods,” he said. “There have been a couple of versions that passed in the last decade, but this one goes a little bit further and makes the process more stringent.”
Specifically, Lopes noted that there would now be notices of public hearings prior to any project being approved, and a tougher permitting process for polluting entities.
The law expands the notices about informal public hearings to include online posts and direct mail to households within a half mile of the proposed facility. In addition, newspaper advertisements must be published to include information on how interested residents can review project documents. Additionally, the law requires that a resident of the impacted area be involved in the negotiations on the environmental impact, along with the company and elected officials.
Lopes said he’s heard firsthand from residents impacted by the pollution generated by factories and businesses.
“I represent an urban area, New Britain, where we struggle with problems,” he said. “The actions [by companies] over the last 100 years have led to pollution in our soils, higher rates of asthma, and higher rates of illnesses among the residents due to environmental concerns. This issue is important to me.”
Lopes also praised the tire disposal law, which puts the onus of the tire disposals on the product’s producer.
“The tire companies have to dispose of them properly; that is the producer,” he said. “They are going to be responsible for making sure these tires are disposed of correctly and not just thrown into the woods and streams and rivers, which is happening a lot.”
The law requires the establishment of a statewide stewardship program to manage certain discarded tires that provides free access to a collection system and ensures discarded tires are resold or recycled. It prohibits tire producers who fail to take part in the program from supplying tires in the state. The bill mandates that tire producers create and join the stewardship program by Jan. 1, 2025. Any program must be approved by the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.
Lopes said tires discarded in places like streams “don’t break down, and they obviously pollute,” adding that some waterways have “hundreds of tires that were dumped.”
An animal-related law passed last year dealt with the killing or hunting of black bears in the state.
The issue was an important one, Lopes said, because “the black bear population, over the last couple of years especially, has been interacting with the human population, usually in a negative manner. It will be interesting to see if those interactions increase or decrease over the next few years.”
The measure, which took effect Oct. 1, permits killing a black bear that damages crops, livestocks or bees, and the killing of bears that cause harm to a person or pets or enter an occupied building. The law outlines an annual bear hunting season in Litchfield County by lottery and prohibits the intentional and unintentional feeding of potentially dangerous animals.
Lopes, who owns a property management business called Amador, said there are several priorities for the 2024 short session, which kicks off Feb. 7.
Lopes noted a waste management bill was signed by Lamont in June, but that it was very specific and aimed at the closure of Hartford-based Materials Innovation and Recycling Authority. He said the bill was “slimmed down” and that a more complete bill is needed.
The law “tries to figure out what to do with all of the waste in our state,” Lopes said. “Currently, we are shipping our waste out of state and it’s very expensive. We need to figure out ways to lessen the amount of waste and to become more streamlined. Obviously, that means recycling more and having less waste going to landfills.”
Lopes said he’s hoping a larger bill will also address the “removal of food scraps and waste out of the waste stream. That is the heaviest portion of our waste stream. Food scraps that go into our landfills can be recycled. There are multiple facilities in the state that are currently able to use food scraps and dispose of them to generate energy.”
Lopes said he also expects the committee to work on a comprehensive climate change bill this year that will “reaffirm our commitment as a state to reducing our carbon emissions.” Such a bill, he said, would “have parameters and benchmarks for where the state needs to be to lower its carbon footprint.”
A bill that would have declared a climate emergency and imposed requirements for various state agencies to address climate change failed to make it to Lamont’s desk last year.
“We are seeing the effects of climate change in the last couple of years with more dangerous storms and changes in our environment,” Lopes said.
Another issue that Lopes hopes makes some headway this year involves prohibiting the release of helium or other lighter-than-air gas balloons into the atmosphere.
Lopes said he wasn’t fully on board with a balloon bill introduced last year which, he said, “was all about restricting how many balloons let loose, and it was cumbersome and didn’t make sense.” That bill never made it to Lamont’s desk.
Rather, Lopes said, “I want them [balloon companies] to work toward creating a biodegradable balloon. We have a big problem now with helium balloons ending up in our rivers and streams and causing problems for wildlife.”
Lopes said he has spoken to people in the balloon industry who support the idea.
“They said they are working toward creating a biodegradable balloon,” Lopes said. “They are amenable to this.”