Suffolk Closeup: Head: Smart Balloon Practices

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Karl Grossman

“One balloon released is one too many,” says Suffolk County Legislator Sarah Anker.
Thus, she is sponsoring a bill to amend current county law, which allows the release of up to 25 helium-filled balloons — and change that number to zero. There would be no release in Suffolk County of helium-filled balloons, or balloons otherwise filled with “lighter-than-air gas.”

“The beaches in my legislative district, which includes the coastline from Mount Sinai to Wading River, are greatly impacted by environmental pollution — in particular, plastics and balloons. It’s time we take responsibility for keeping our oceans clean and become better stewards of our environment,” says Ms. Anker, among the strong environmentalists on the 18-member County Legislature.

A Mount Sinai resident, she cites findings documenting that released balloons have “devastating effects on sea life.” Her resolution notes that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has determined that “balloon debris can be easily mistaken for food and ingested by animals, and balloons with ribbons can entangle wildlife. Balloon debris can also have an economic impact on communities by contributing to dirty beaches, and can cause power outages when entangled with power lines.”

The bill will come before the legislature next week. If it passes and then is signed by County Executive Steve Bellone, fines for releasing a balloon in the county would start at up to $500 for the first violation, $750 for the second, and $1,000 for the third and any additional violations.

The move to flatly prohibit the release of balloons began in Suffolk County in February with the East Hampton Town Board voting 5-0 to bar any balloon releases. “Balloons waste natural resources, litter our communities, pollute our waterways and kill wildlife,” says the legislation enacting the East Hampton ban.

The Southampton Town Board followed last month, with all members present passing a complete ban “intended to reduce the negative impact that balloons have on the environment by discouraging the intentional release of balloons in the Town of Southampton.”

A spark plug behind the East Hampton, Southampton and Suffolk County actions is Susan Faith McGraw Keber, a dedicated environmentalist and member of the East Hampton Town Trustees. The Trustees have been, as their website notes, “stewards of public lands and waterways since 1661. We are one of the oldest bodies of government in our country.” The elected panel, created in colonial times, predates balloons—but not concern for the environment.

Ms. Keber, a resident of Northwest Woods, spoke to other East Hampton officials about the need for a town measure—Town Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc sponsored East Hampton’s resolution—and then went to Southampton and conferred with officials there. She also met with county officials.

The Suffolk County law on balloons that would be amended took form in 2005, when Legislator Lynne Nowick of St. James received a letter from some elementary school students about helium-filled balloons falling into waterways and being mistaken for jellyfish by sea animals, which ingested the balloons and died. They noted that Connecticut, because of this issue, banned mass balloon releases—and they suggested the same sort of thing be done in Suffolk County.

Ms. Nowick studied the issue, found that balloons represented the most common form of floating garbage within 200 miles from shore, and, indeed, regularly kill marine life, especially turtles. She introduced the bill that became current county law, which would continue as law, although zeroing out any balloon releases if the Anker bill is enacted.

An entity called The Balloon Council, a balloon industry group based in New Jersey, tried to stop the Suffolk County measure, but the legislature stood up to it. The Balloon Council has described itself as “Affirming America’s Ongoing Love Affair with Balloons.” It is now in retreat, stating conspicuously on its website (theballooncouncil.org) that “balloons should not be released.” This is keeping, it says, with what it labels “Smart Balloon Practices.”

Between 2012 and 2017, the Associated Press has reported, The Balloon Council spent more than $1 million “lobbying against balloon regulations nationwide.”

The website of the organization Balloons Blow (balloonsblow.org), based in Florida, is loaded with suggestions as substitutes for releasing balloons. “There are many safe, fun, and eye-catching alternatives to balloons for parties, memorials, fundraisers, and more!” it says. “As we become more aware of our personal impacts on the environment, people are ditching single-use, wasteful products for earth-friendly, reusable and exciting alternatives.”
Considering how deadly a balloon released into the environment can be, “one released balloon” is indeed “one too many.”

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