Staunch environmental activist and former congressman Maurice Hinchey, who represented Ithaca for 20 years and once shipped President Ronald Reagan a gallon of acid rain and a tree, died Wednesday night at his Saugerties home. He was 79.
Hinchey’s family announced his death in a Facebook post, saying “he was a beloved statesman, and cherished for his work in the community and nationwide.” The family previously said Hinchey had frontotemporal degeneration, a rare progressive neurological condition.
Hinchey, a Democrat, served 10 terms as a U.S. congressman, representing Ithaca and surrounding areas when the city was part of District 26, from 1993 to 2003, and when it was in District 22, from 2003 until his retirement in 2013.
Prior to his terms in Congress, Hinchey represented Ulster County for 18 years in the New York State Assembly. Hinchey was Ulster County’s first Democratic representative since 1912 when he began serving in 1975.
U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer, who served with Hinchey in the state assembly during the 1970s, praised Hinchey’s passion for environmental preservation.
“‘Mighty Moe’ as I used to call him was a man of great conviction, principle, endless energy & rare legislative ability,” Schumer tweeted. “He cut a unique figure throughout the Hudson Valley & the Southern Tier & was passionately committed to the environment & to preserving that region’s priceless open & wild spaces. He will be sorely missed.”
Hinchey became chairman of the State Assembly’s Environmental Conservation Committee in 1979. Possibly his most prominent work was his investigation of the so-called Love Canal.
After reports of birth defects and high miscarriage rates in Niagara Falls, Hinchey launched an investigation into the unfinished waterway. His investigation found that there had been 22,000 tons of toxic waste dumped into the canal, and resulted in the evacuation of many families, The Washington Post reported. The investigation helped launch a superfund for waste cleanup in areas across the country.
Hinchey also took strong stances against fracking and in support of renewable energy. He was one of three initial sponsors of legislation to regulate fracking, which was banned in New York in 2014.
ProPublica reported Hinchey and two other members of Congress, in a letter urging the interior secretary to pass fracking regulations in 2011, said “the public has a right to know what toxins might be going into the ground near their communities, and what might be leaking into their drinking water.”
Hinchey was also the primary sponsor of an acid rain prevention bill in New York — the first of its kind in the United States, The New York Times reported.
To bring attention to the issue, Hinchey sent a gallon of acid rain water and a spruce sapling to President Ronald Reagan in 1984.
“Mr. Reagan can water the sapling with New York rainwater and see for himself how its growth will be stunned over a period of time,” Hinchey said at a news conference that year, the Associated Press reported. “We can supply him with all the acid rain he needs for the experiment because New York is one of the most seriously affected states in the nation.
“We want Mr. Reagan to understand it’s not trees which pollute the atmosphere,” Hinchey continued. “Mr. Reagan doesn’t understand environmental pollution.”
Another investigation Hinchey took on while he was an assemblyman was the control organized crime had on the New York garbage business. Hinchey released a 70-page case study in 1989 regarding an illegal landfill in Orange County.
Hinchey said at the time that New York’s penalties for illegal dumping were much less strict than surrounding cities, feeding into the problem of illegal waste sites.
“The maximum penalties tend to be about $1,000 whereas millions and millions of dollars have been made and continue to be made by people engaged in illegal dumping,” Hinchey said at the time, according to the Associated Press.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said in 2013, when Hinchey retired, that “From his seat on the Appropriations Committee, Congressman Hinchey has always put his constituents and his state first – creating good-paying jobs with investments in local highway projects, protecting family farms and a safe food supply, and acting to preserve our natural resources and national parks.”
While on the Appropriations Committee, Hinchey also helped support men and women in uniform, and “led the charge to transform upstate New York into a hub for high-tech, clean energy manufacturing, solar energy research, and innovation,” Pelosi said.