David Paterson

David Paterson.

It’s official. Spitzer’s splitting because of his loose zipper. Lt. Gov. David Paterson has been given an unexpected promotion. Now that we know what is going to happen with the personnel shift, people are scrambling to gauge how this new governor will deal with ongoing issues in the Empire State, a state that is third largest in both population and economy.

I was born and raised in New York state, and pretty much all of my family still lives there — so I have been particularly riveted by all this, running up and down the Grist office like a gossiping hen. But now my interest is focused on Paterson, the accidental history-maker (first African-American governor in state history, first legally blind governor in U.S. history — New Yorkers know how to do it big), and his environmental record. After a quick LexisNexis search, I found some hits that I would like to share. (Sorry, the Daily News does not have links for the articles I reference.)

In October 2001, just a month after the attacks on the World Trade Center, then state Sen. David Paterson held a press conference challenging the assurances by the EPA that air quality around Ground Zero was within safe levels. Believing more studies were needed, he stated (from the Daily News: “Pols Leery of WTC Air Quality,” Oct. 11, 2001):

We cannot engage in that kind of conduct [of hasty judgements] at the possible expense of the individuals who live and work there.

Of course, we now know that the air quality was bad well after October 2001, with cases of ill health popping up (especially with clean-up and salvage crews, the people the EPA’s assurances were geared toward).

Five years later, in October 2006, the New York City Council met in Harlem to raise awareness of the high environmental and health impacts of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority locating major bus-fueling hubs near Harlem’s 96th St. A Daily News column (“MTA’s Choke Hold: Pols Must Step In to Curb Unhealthy Uptown Bus Depots,” Oct. 17, 2006) by Errol Louis sums up the issue:

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority has seven bus barns in Manhattan, depots where vehicles get parked, fixed, fueled, and relaunched every day. The diesel-powered buses that line up in and around the depots pump out smog day and night.

All but one of the depots are north of 96th St., and house more than 1,300 buses — about one-third of the entire city fleet of 4,200. This over-concentration of vehicles contributes to the sky-high rates of asthma uptown. In 2003, researchers were startled to find that one in four kids in central Harlem had asthma — the highest rate in America.

During this time, Louis urged then state senator and soon-to-be Lt. Gov. Paterson to force the MTA to take action by threatening them with a funding freeze. But it seemed that Paterson failed to act or respond to that suggestion, and the people of uptown Manhattan are still dealing with the issue today.

In May of 2007, Lt. Gov. Paterson toured the construction area for six underwater turbines in the East River (I posted about this last year). Once again, from the Daily News (“That’s Flow-er Power: Roosevelt Island Gets Green Light as Turbines Harness East River Current,” May 1, 2007):

“We are looking for innovative, sustainable, renewable forms of energy,” said Lt. Gov. David Paterson as he toured the site. Here we have a company that was founded by people who care about the environment … and this substantially decreases our dependence on oil-based fuels.”

Finally, last month Paterson announced the recommendations of a state green-energy task force that he chaired, including meeting 25 percent of the state’s energy needs with renewable energy by 2013, and developing and nurturing a “green-collar” workforce.

So what can we gain from these examples? This is where I put on my pundit hat (I feel like a more handsome version of David now!) and say, “Well, you can expect Paterson to be an environmental governor, but not the environmental governor in the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger.” (Arnie, by the way, tops our list of 15 green politicians. Hey, if you’re a pundit, you’ve got to plug.) There will be issues that he will take on and issues that he will not. The Harlem bus depot issue is a prime example of the latter; even in a district he once represented, he played the standard political logic of the transportation priority of the many trumping the health matters of the few (the people living and working near the depots). Or maybe he just had better things to do at the time. Who knows?

Also don’t expect Paterson to spearhead any multistate environmental alliances, or spearhead anything national for that matter. If any green action does come out of a Paterson administration, it will be with a narrow focus on New York state.

Hopefully Paterson will build on the momentum of surprise and really start to make some positive changes in the environmental landscape of New York and the country. But since only four hits came up in LexisNexis when I typed in “Paterson AND environment,” hope is the only thing New Yorkers have at this moment.