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June 11, 2009

The Buffalo News

Fix the leaky bottle bill
Federal court unmasks a flaw but should not sidetrack law

A federal court ruling on a controversial water issue has just put a hole in New York’s budgetary bucket, and should send lawmakers back to work fixing a flaw in the law.

New York State officials have been blocked by a federal judge from collecting 5-cent deposits on bottles of water until next April, costing the state an estimated $115 million that an expanded “bottle bill” had sought to capture by including bottles of water and other beverages in the deposit program. That potentially throws the state’s recently enacted budget out of balance, and it has a negative environmental impact by curtailing an incentive for recycling.

U. S. District Judge Thomas Griesa’s order also affords more time for lobbying to bottling companies that had opposed the state law because of its added operational costs and a shift that would have let the state, not companies, keep unclaimed deposits.

Environmentalists make the point that without the expansion, stores and redemption centers will not receive a bottle-return handling fee boost from 2 to 3.5 cents per bottle, and that small centers likely will close.

While most businesses have accepted the new policy and did try to prepare for the new requirements, some industry groups pushed hard to delay and weaken the law. Nestle and other bottled water companies sued for an injunction. The judge went further than what they sought in their lawsuit by not only delaying labeling requirements but extending the postponement to all other parts of the new law, including the transfer of 80 percent of the unclaimed deposits to the state and the 1.5 cent handling fee increase for stores and redemption centers.

A major bottling company issue concerns the new law’s requirement that beverage companies put New York Statespecific UPC bar codes on their beverage containers by June 1, obviously an impossible deadline for most businesses. That was a flaw pointed out even by some proponents of the measure during the debates, and it should have been addressed.

At last count, there were four different proposals to amend the law, from postponing labeling requirements to other issues. The New York Public Interest Research Group also makes the valid point that Gov. David A. Paterson muddied the waters considerably by proposing to take away the 1.5 cent handling fee increase for supermarkets.

The federal court ruling slows implementation of the expanded bottle bill, reopening the intense lobbying effort in Albany that has marked this debate for years. The Legislature should use the time to address the problems the court has targeted—but not to delay this measure into oblivion.


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