The Power Kill?
Balancing The Energy Environment
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 environments demands.
Power plants in north-western Queens, like this one,
provide valuable energy to the area, but questions on the environmental soundness of the
facilities are reaching critical mass. Tribune Photo by Ira Cohen
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
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 Generals Environmental Protection Bureau indicated that
"Forty-five-percent of air pollution, in respect to ozone depletion, comes from other
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
United Community Civic Associations
Rose Marie Poveromo said, "Its time to vote out these elected officials that
dont 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.
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,
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.
At the largest C.H.O.K.E
meeting ever on April 13, the lights went out, and Assemblyman Denis Butler offered the
meetings only levity when he asked the nearly 200 people who attended, "Is that
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
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.
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.
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
|"The oil we provided is of
the highest standard and
low in sulfur."
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
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
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.
"Its 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."