BY SUSAN LEE
Don’t be shocked if Queens is a terrorist target – that’s what some local residents and public officials are saying about the security, or lack thereof, at the borough’s power plants and electric generators.
This week as the nation’s top officials said another terrorist attack on American soil is “inevitable” and law enforcement officials were on high alert after uncorroborated threats named specific New York targets, Queens residents and elected officials told the Tribune that lagging security at power plants that produce the city’s electricity, house oil tanks, natural gases, and other highly flammable substances pose a potentially “catastrophic” danger if attacked.
Has Security Been Switched Off?
In the weeks immediately following the Sept. 11 attacks, Sanitation Department trucks filled with sand at entrances and security checkpoints set up by the NYPD and National Guard were a visible presence around Queens’ five power plants and numerous generators.
But according to neighboring residents, the National Guard has long since moved out, taking with them the sense of security they once felt.
Tony Gigantiello, founder of the Queens-based Coalition of Helping Organizations for a (K)Cleaner Environment (CHOKE) said he has observed that absence of security around the site of a Long Island City electric turbine generator.
The electricity-producing generator near the Queensboro Bridge is operated by the New York Power Authority.
“I started probably noticing, when I would visit the sites around January, that there was no more security around,” Gigantiello said. “At one point, there would be only one or two security guard(s) inside the gate, asleep, or watching television. Those turbines look accessible by the water, and the grounds are not secure… anyone could pull up in a boat, and do anything,” Gigantiello said.
Turning Up The Juice On Security
According to Assemblyman Michael Gianaris, who toured the some of the electricity producing facilities himself, neighbors would like to see security beefed up around Queens’ power plants and generators. Earlier this month, he introduced legislation to get power plant owners to do just that.
“I want to ensure that these private companies are not more concerned with their profit margin, rather than a minimal level of security to make the public confident—so they are not jeopardizing safety in the name of saving cost,” Gianaris said.
Gianaris said that the proposed bill would require power plants to be overseen by the state Public Security Office, a newly created department in response to the Sept. 11 attacks.
Gianaris also told the Tribune that he consulted with local law enforcement officials to draft the bill.
If passed, it will give power to the State Office to set security standards for all power plants and transmission lines after security experts survey each facility and make recommendations.
Councilman Peter Vallone Jr., who provided legal counsel for CHOKE before taking office, said he fully supports the Gianaris’ bill.
Even during a budget crunch, public safety should be a number one priority, Vallone said.
While there is “no reason to believe that private companies are not up to par with security procedures, there is no adequate regulation to see to this,” Vallone added.
An Attack Is ‘Unlikely’
With a number of power plants and generators in the area, some residents think about the worst of all possibilities, they said.
But security expert John Prados, Senior Fellow of the National Security Archives based in Washington and author of a recent book titled “America Confronts Terrorism” said that the threat of attacks on power plants are unlikely.
“If you were terrorist and planning to attack a power plant, first of all, you would need to familiarize with the design of the plant, observe it over a long period, figure out how it would happen, sense design of the plant, and then you would have to procure those things. It is an elaborate procedure that would take a considerable amount of time,” Prados said.
“We have to make a critical distinction between a reasonable threat and propaganda,” Prados said.
The recent announcements made by the F.B.I. and other government officials have been “a disservice” and “contributing to public hysteria,” he added.
Coming Back From An Attack
According to Ken Klapp, a representative of the New York Independent System Operator (NYISO), an organization which acts like a broker between energy suppliers and consumers, if any unforeseen event should occur, whether it be an attack on the plant or natural disaster, the City would not suffer greatly from power outages.
“The grid is set up with more generators than are needed and we have designed it so that if for a variety of reasons, the system will work around the problem. Let’s say that a 1000 mega-watt facility goes down, we would have an extra 1000 mega-watts up in 10 minutes.” Klapp said.
Power And Precaution
The private companies and the New York Power Authority (NYPA) told the Tribune that increased precautions are being enforced and that the concerns voiced have been heard.
“Our general policy is that we have increased security. But we are not discussing it because that gives the bad guys a heads-up. We are very much aware of the increased concern and apprehension of the residents,” said Jack Murphy, Director of Public Affairs for the NYPA.
A spokeswoman for KeySpan said, “We are in a heightened state of awareness and we take the concerns very seriously from the community and our employees, but we can’t disclose the specifics.”
And the NYPD was also muted when we asked them about security measures.
Disclosing any information could be a breach of security in itself, police said.
“As far as those locations, those buildings secure themselves and they do have security, we have a direct line with them and when security needs to be heightened, as far as I know, the area is patrolled,” a police source said.
Residents And Reassurance
Gigantiello said he still wants the local power companies to do something to ease the fears of neighboring residents.
“I don’t want to see a blueprint of schedules of officers patrolling the area. I am very much against that so they (the terrorists) do not get their hands on vital information on what they’re doing to beef up security. Essentially you’re giving them a roadmap of security check points,” he said.
“What I do want to see is a statement issued by companies that they are trying to double up security and that we have things in place. Even if they submitted their security plans to government officials. . .the public would get assurance from the government, I’d feel comfortable,” he said.
“The companies should be reaching out to the community and reassuring them that they are not in any danger,” Gigantiello added.
Talking About Our Power
Four out of Queens’ five electric power plants are located in western Queens – the fifth is in Rockaway.
The companies that own the plants are NRG, Reliant, and KeySpan Energy.
The New York Power Authority also operates an electricity producing facility in western Queens.
KeySpan owns the plant in Rockaway and the power plant on Vernon Boulevard in Ravenswood.
The Reliant, NRG and NYPA plants are all located on 20th Avenue in Astoria.
Other Bills To Battle Terror
A major bioterrorism bill being discussed in a House and Senate conference committee will involve definitive protection measures.
As early as this week, the bill will be finalized on the floor for a vote.