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State Capitol celebrates Earth Day, activists call for environmental change

Karen Dewitt
Katherine Murphy of Adirondack Wildlife, with a short eared owl, which is endangered in New York.

Earth Day was celebrated at the state Capitol, with a tribute to the late Pete Seeger and a display of live owls.

Activists gathered at the Capitol to lobby for environmental issues and to hear musicians David Bernz and Dan Einbender pay tribute to Pete Seeger, who passed away in January. In recent years, Seeger had appeared at the Capitol to protest against the controversial gas drilling process called hydrofracking, which has been on hold in New York. Bernz says when Seeger performed just last year at a Farm Aid event, he added something new to the Woody Guthrie standard "This Land is Your Land," the verse “New York was made to be frack free.”

The controversy over the drilling process has sucked all of the oxygen out of the room for other environmental issues for the past few years, as Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his top commissioners continue to deliberate over whether to allow fracking in New York. Currently, there’s an ongoing review conducted by the health department.

Assemblyman Brian Kavanagh, who recently formed the non-partisan Caucus of Environmental Legislators says there are other issues of concern as well.

“Fracking is a tremendously important issue and I think it’s a singular achievement that New York state has managed to be thoughtful and careful about that in a way that many other states haven’t,” Kavanagh said. “But we have huge issues related to climate change.”  

He says laws regulating toxic chemicals in consumer products have not been updated since the 1970s. And he says the state’s Brownfields Act, which helps recover polluted and abandoned factory sites, needs renewal.

There’s also concern over the increased oil tanker trains rolling through upstate New York and ending at the Port of Albany and the potential danger of explosions. Kavanagh says the rapid increase in the number of oil tank cars is a sign of what he sees as a larger problem; the inability to wean ourselves from fossil fuels.  

“We’re using more and more aggressive efforts to extract, to transport and to burn those fuels,” Kavanagh said.

Earth Day also coincided with Adirondack Day at the Capitol, and a display that included live owls. Katherine Murphy, with Adirondack Wildlife, says the short eared owl that perched on her falconer’s glove is in decline, because unlike barn owls, it can only nest in grass lands.

She says the best way to help preserve owls and other birds of prey is to refrain from using pesticides to kill mice, rats and other rodents.

“It’s horrible,” said Murphy, who says the anti-coagulants are also lethal to birds that eat the poisoned rodents.  

Assemblyman Kavanagh and other environmental advocates say they hope next year state lawmakers will approve an environmental bond act to generate more funding, and focus attention on environmental issues.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.