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Ban on Helium Balloons Coming Soon

Thu, 10/14/2021 - 10:08
Balloons tangled in seaweed on the ocean beach in Montauk
Jane Bimson

East Hampton Town appears likely to ban the sale of balloons filled with helium or other lighter-than-air gas, following a public hearing last Thursday. The ban would take effect on Jan. 1, 2022.

Balloons are a popular accessory at celebrations like birthdays, weddings, and graduations, but their effect on wildlife can be lethal. Marine mammals, sea turtles, and birds often mistake them for squid, jellyfish, or other prey, and ingestion is a major threat. Animals can also become entangled in the ribbons commonly affixed to balloons, which can cut deeply into their flesh or strangle them.

Five residents of the South Fork called in to the virtual meeting, all of whom supported the proposed prohibition, some likening it to an overdue societal evolution. “The idea that we need balloons to celebrate something is outdated,” said Brian Schopfer, vice chairman of the Surfrider Foundation Eastern Long Island chapter’s executive committee and an owner of Grain Surfboards in Amagansett. He spoke of the many balloons collected during the foundation’s beach cleanups and its outreach to students, who he said also support a prohibition.

Jennifer Hartnagel, a senior environmental associate with the Group for the East End, likened a balloon prohibition to that of plastic bags, which the town, the county, and the state have all banned in recent years. “Education only took us so far,” she said of the single-use plastic bag. “It wasn’t until legislation was adopted” that measurable change happened. It is “highly, highly unusual” for her group to not find “balloons everywhere” when conducting a beach cleanup, she said.

The Southampton Town Board voted 4-to-1 in June to prohibit both the intentional release of balloons and the sale or distribution of any balloon filled with a lighter-than-air gas. Tip Brolin of that town’s sustainability advisory committee said that research done before the vote found that more than 85,000 helium-filled balloons were used annually in the town, each of them used once and discarded.

“Some end up in a landfill,” he said, but many kill marine mammals and birds that mistake them for food. Mylar balloons, he noted, are responsible for electrical outages, according to PSEG. And latex, though considered biodegrad-able, “really takes years, if ever, to degrade.” Helium, he added, is a valuable and nonrenewable resource.

Maureen Bluedorn of East Hampton spoke of impromptu beach cleanups while walking her dogs and of seeing scores of helium-filled balloons adorning oceanfront properties during celebrations. “I do think that we should be more progressive about our environment and put in stricter measures relative to protection of the wildlife and our vital climate,” she said.

Susan McGraw Keber, a town trustee, had sent to board members letters of support for the ban from elected officials including Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. and County Legislator Bridget Fleming; a number of environmental advocacy organizations, and residents of East Hampton and Southampton Towns, some of whom serve on their town’s sustainability advisory committee.

Also at the meeting, the town board voted to endorse a transition from fossil fuel-based heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning systems to electrical systems using air or ground-source heat pumps in municipal buildings. The resolution followed presentations on Oct. 5 and in August, both of which included a recommendation by the town’s energy and sustainability committee to adopt the policy. Air source and ground-source, or geothermal, heat pumps are available for residential, commercial, and municipal buildings; air source heat pumps were recently installed at Southampton Town Hall, and several other municipalities in New York State have done the same.

Thirty percent of New York’s greenhouse gas emissions come from on-site fossil fuel combustion to heat buildings, according to the state’s Energy Research and Development Authority. Air-source and geothermal heat pumps are far more energy-efficient than conventional heating systems, produce no greenhouse gas emissions, and have lower operation and maintenance costs than fossil fuel-based HVAC systems.

In other business, the town board resolved to apply to a grant program run by the State Department of Environmental Conservation for money to fund the installation of electric vehicle charging stations at the Town Hall campus. The town could be awarded $250,000 toward the installation, the board was told during an Oct. 5 presentation.

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