BY JOSH KAUFMAN
This week in 1970, smoke stacks reached into the air over Queens, puffing out by-products as they labored to generate power and meet the public demand. And environmentalists created Earth Day to make public education meet the environment’s demands.
Thirty years later, the stacks still puff, the day is still celebrated, and the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC) estimates that 4,024 people die cardiopulmonary deaths annually due to air pollution in the New York metropolitan area. The figure is second only to those who succumb to the same fate in the Los Angeles/Long Beach area in California (about 5,873).
Three plants are currently operating in the western Queens area — the 1,753-megawatt Ravenswood Generating Station, owned by KeySpan; the 1,090-megawatt Astoria Generating Station, owned by Orion Power Holdings; the 1637-megawatt Poletti Power Plant, owned by the New York State Power Authority.
Though the gigantic smokestacks protruding from Ravenswood and the 18-story Poletti boiler are only visible from certain areas of the borough, the power they generate and their environmental side-car reach throughout the borough, and adding their piece to a pollution level fed by Queens airports, the power plants of neighboring cities, and by sources as far away as the mid-west.
Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney said, “More than 35,000 Queens schoolchildren already suffer from asthma and a 1998 federal study found that the presence of three dirty power plants, two major airports and six major highways has made air quality in Queens particularly toxic.”
Ashok Gupta of the NRDC added, “Emissions travel huge distances and short distances. The Midwestern coal burning plants effect the metropolitan area along with power plants, airports, buses and trucks, and cars. Everyone should be concerned with power plant issues.”
Gordon J. Johnson, of the Office of Attorney General’s Environmental Protection Bureau indicated that “Forty-five-percent of air pollution, in respect to ozone depletion, comes from other states.”
The Queens plants have been “grandfathered” in, which, in governmental terms, means that they existed before a particular law and therefore are allowed to continue existing, no matter how the law changes. These plants existed before the new standards specified in the Clean Air Act of 1970, explained Senator George Onorato. Therefore, they can continue to emit larger quantities of substances such as carbon dioxide (CO2), nitrogen oxide (NOx), and sulfur dioxide (SO2).
United Community Civic Association’s Rose Marie Poveromo said, “It’s time to vote out these elected officials that don’t care about our health. We live in a blanket of toxic air pollution. It is time for the residents of Queens County to stop breathing in toxic fumes,” Poveromo said.
WHAT DO THE NUMBERS MEAN?
Power plant emission standards are maintained on a national cap. If a plant goes over its allowed emissions for a particular toxic substance, the plant can buy “credits” – drawing from the national cap.
For the metropolitan area, NOx levels have increased dramatically in the last decade, causing federal environmentalists to place an additional “regional cap” on the gas, limiting its effects on the atmosphere, said Gupta.
The NRDC has proposed putting a cap solely on Queens in light of the NOx situation.
Since there is no proven scientific correlation between their emissions and illness-causing pollution in the area, the power companies approached by the Tribune had no comment on the air pollution issues, explaining simply that it was not their fault.
However, an angry group of Queens residents calling themselves C.H.O.K.E. — the Coalition Helping Organize a Kleaner Environment – held a meeting last week in western Queens and voiced strong opinions that called for protection from the power plant waste.
C.H.O.K.E. OUT POLLUTION
At the largest C.H.O.K.E meeting ever on April 13, the lights went out, and Assemblyman Denis Butler offered the meeting’s only levity when he asked the nearly 200 people who attended, “Is that a message?”
The lights flickered on moments later, and the laughter dissipated quickly as elected officials and community activist groups presented testimony on what they believe are the health hazards power plants present to Queens – and the entire metropolitan area.
“More than 35,000 Queens schoolchildren already suffer
from asthma and a 1998 federal study found that the presence of three dirty power plants, two major airports and six major highways has made air quality in Queens particularly toxic.”
Currently, C.H.O.K.E. represents approximately 320,000 families in NYC, with the bulk of the membership right in Queens. The coalition has the support of Council Speaker Peter Vallone — who serves as its honorary chairman — to help continue the fight against power companies which do not upgrade existing facilities, and limit the placement of new plants.
Anthony J. Gigantiello Jr., president of C.H.O.K.E., pointed to a bill championed by Governor George Pataki and Assemblyman Sheldon Silver that he said “slipped” through the legislature last year, allowing plants to be built without warning to the surrounding community and without an environmental impact study on the proposed area.
“There are 27 plants proposed for the State of New York, with a few more on the way,” said Gupta.
FOR THE FUTURE
Three plants, totaling nearly 2,000-megawatts, have been proposed for Queens.
The Poletti Site is adding an additional 500-megawatt plant alongside the existing one; SCS Energy is planning to construct a 1000-megawatt facility on the Astoria Castle Fuel site; KeySpan looks to bump its Ravenswood site an extra 425-megawatts.
The Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) Siting Board, which issues SPDES permits, consists of five commissioners, each one appointed by Governor George Pataki. The two additional spots on the board go to a member from the judicial ranks and one from the community. C.H.O.K.E. has petitioned for Vallone and Gigantiello, respectively, to fill those spots.
WHAT THE PLANTS SAY
As for why new power producers are needed in Queens, the answer from the plant corporations points to the infrastructure already hardwired in Queens’ underbelly.
The power companies explained that new regulations requiring New York City plants to produce 80-percent of the power-demand within the city limits requires the creation of new facilities. The old mark of 60-percent was raised because of increased electrical consumption in a growing, economically-healthy population.
“The oil we provided is of
the highest standard and
low in sulfur.”
– Joe Petta
Con Ed Spokesperson
The NRDC said that it is up to the population to control plant proliferation by better managing the usage of electricity. “People should buy energy-efficient products to reduce overall demand. Buying inefficient appliances up front might be cheaper, but we need to take responsibility on how we use electricity,” said Gupta.
However, local officials charge that the plant increase is about more than just more demand. Onorato said that since Con Edison and KeySpan own the power lines, they also control the flow and production of power. “The plants can produce excess power — with added pollution to our area — and use the gas lines to move it to be stored and eventually sold elsewhere,” the Senator charged.
Officials at the Poletti plant denied producing any more power than needed, explaining that the New York Power Authority-run facility is for public use. The Poletti plant has also acquired the reputation among environmentalists as being one of the dirtiest plants in New York State, but according to NYPA spokesperson Louis Rodriguez, the reputation is a misnomer.
“By law we have to produce an additional facility. The old plant will be reduced from 100-percent to 30-percent when the new plant comes on-line,” said Rodriguez. “We have complied with any regulations imposed and have gone above and beyond what was necessary [in cleanliness].”
Statistics show the nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions from the Poletti plant climb to 3,446 tons annually in 1998, up from the 1,699 tons produced in 1996. The heavy NOx emissions contribute to atmospheric pollution and are partly responsible for the air in Queens being 281 times more polluted than EPA safe levels, according to NRDC data. Poletti officials site a “tolling agreement” with Con Edison as the cause of the NOx emission spike. The tolling agreement states that during that period the Poletti plant would provide the energy, while Con Edison provided the fuel. The fuel of choice during 1998 was oil, which compared to gas is highly inefficient and raises levels of emissions, according to Rodriguez.
But Joe Petta, a spokesperson for Con Edison said of the tolling agreement “The oil we provided is of the highest standard and low in sulfur.”
Petta also said that Con Edison charges the power companies a fee for using the lines to move energy. He did not know if excess power was produced at the plants, but said that it was possible to sell power to other parts of the region.
KeySpan Energy has done the most pollution control work out of the area companies, according to C.H.O.K.E. “This plant [Ravenswood] already meets clean air standards for the year 2003,” said Howard Kosel, vice president, Generation Operations of KeySpan. “The upgrade program means that Ravenswood will be a model of environmental efficiency for years to come.”
Gupta agreed with KeySpan, and commended the power giant on its willingness to upgrade existing facilities. “These dramatic improvements show that energy-producing companies really can reduce emissions in response to the needs of the environment and the community,” he said.
Even though many Astoria area residents believe that KeySpan is doing the most, it was a stunned Gordon Bastian of the West Queens Greens who said, “KeySpan is one of the major sponsors of Earth Day 2000.”
Orion Power Holdings, a company based out of Baltimore, could not be reached by the Tribune for comment.
WHAT DO THE CIVICS WANT
“It’s time for the Governor to amend the Siting Bill Law,” said Poveromo. “This is our health and we will die or live together. We need our elected officials – even those who voted for the bill – to fight. It is a good fight.”