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BILL PUSHED TO WIDEN ENVIRONMENTAL SUITS

Environmentalists today hailed a bill that would allow citizens to sue polluters who violate environmental laws.

They joined with State Attorney General Robert Abrams in asking area legislators to back the measure they say "has been stalled too long."

Abrams said more than 30 states already have laws authorizing citizen suits.

Tony Lupino of Citizen Action said that if the law had been on the books earlier, citizens could have brought action to stop air pollution violations at the BethEnergy coke oven plant in Lackawanna or to force Niagara Mohawk Power Corp. to have a permit for a PCB storage site at its Dewey Avenue Service Center in Buffalo.

"This bill would give everyone the practical tools to translate their concern into action by enabling them to take legal measures to stop the degradation of our priceless natural resources," said Abrams, who came to Buffalo today to press for passage. "I am making it a high legislative priority for 1990 to convince the Legislature to pass this important law."

An Abrams spokeswoman said a similar bill was passed by the Assembly last year but did not come to a vote in the State Senate.

Gov. Cuomo and Abrams are urging passage, and Assemblyman Maurice D. Hinchey, D-Saugerties, head of the Assembly's Environmental Conservation Committee, is sponsoring the measure along with State Sen. Kenneth P. LaValle, R-C, Port Jefferson.

A spokesman for the Business Council of New York State said the group opposes the bill, saying "(the) DEC is supposed to enforce environmental laws . . . and when citizen suits get involved in the process, it takes the decisions out of the hands of those who are supposed to do the job and who have the expertise to do the job."

Spokesman Robert Ward said a state law would "duplicate already existing federal laws and it's an unnecessary interference in the process."

Ward said experience shows that rather than individuals filing suits, legal actions are generally taken by well-organized environmental groups that use such suits as a means of raising money for other environmental projects. He said many of the actions have been taken against companies that have long since corrected the problem.

But Lupino said citizen lawsuits are another tool to force corporate polluters who flagrantly violate the law to take action.

"The state Department of Environmental Conservation is understaffed, and this should be a big help for the agency if citizens are out watching and knowing that they can take legal action against polluters," Lupino said.

"In a case where citizens feel DEC is lackadaisical or more generous in giving a company the benefit of the doubt, more than citizens would allow, it will help to put a little fire under the department," he added.

Phillip G. Weller, executive director of Great Lakes United, said the organization representing more than 180 groups supports the bill.

"It's been stalled a number of years, and I hope this year it will clear the Legislature," he said.

The chairman of the Erie County Environmental Management Commission said the law would allow New York State residents to bring actions involving state laws in the same way citizens can sue to enforce federal environmental laws.

Barry B. Boyer said a number of suits have been brought against polluters to enforce the nation's clean air and clean water acts.

Citizens have the right to bring certain actions now, but Abrams said the new law would allow a private citizen, for example, who has suffered personal injury or property damage such as pollution of their drinking water to sue the party they believe responsible.

Others supporting the measure locally include the Ecumenical Task Force of the Niagara Frontier; the Atlantic Chapter of the Sierra Club; New York Mothers and Others for Pesticide Limits; the University at Buffalo Law School and Help Eliminate Lawn Pesticides.

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