A man dressed all in black stood beneath the black and white plumes of smoke rising from a power plant. He was wearing a gas mask. Another man carried a blue-faced puppet -- blue for lack of breath -- with an asthma inhaler stuck in its mouth. Other protesters banged on pots and pans and toted signs that read: "Con Ed Let Me Breathe."
They were protesting Con Edison's plan to increase power production at its East River power plant, located on 14th Street between Avenues C and D. Power is being increased there to make up for the energy lost because the company is shutting down completely another plant further uptown, just south of the United Nations. Con Ed sold that plant and some surrounding property last year to private developers, for $680 million.
Since the plant being shut down is in a rich neighborhood, with a large population of white residents, and the plant being expanded is in a poor neighborhood, with a large population of people of color, the shift seems the clearest possible example to the protesters of what they call environmental racism.
Environmental racism is the charge that hangs over a better known power play as well, the effort by the New York Power Authority to build six new temporary power plants in New York City by June 1. Protesters of that effort say that the plants are going up only in low-income and minority neighborhoods, drawing more pollution to areas that already have more than their fair share.
The decision makers reply that none of these decisions have anything to do with environmental racism, and everything to do with efficiently avoiding a crippling energy crisis this summer. Con Edison says that its plan to expand the East River plant will actually reduce pollution overall. State energy officials and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani say the choice of sites for the six new plants had nothing to do with discrimination; they are all in industrial areas that were readily available and had connections to gas and electric lines.
As the weather heats up and the humidity builds, so does the debate over where to place new power plants, what to do with the older, dirtier ones, and how much energy policy should take into account the environment of particular neighborhoods.
HOT IN THE CITY
New York's demand for electricity is at an all-time high. Over the past four years alone, the demand has increased so sharply it is as if the city has suddenly been asked to provide electricity for 700,000 new households.
Everybody agrees that the increased demand is causing a strain, and has to be addressed. Conservationists argue that alternative energy sources like solar and wind power should be tapped, and that steps should be taken to use more efficient technologies in everything from public buildings to streetlights. Most people in authority, however, say that new power plants are the answer.
Private companies are planning to build several large plants in low-income sections of the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens. Each plant will have over 1,000 megawatts capacity, enough to serve one million homes. (One megawatt is enough power to provide electricity to 1,000 homes). But these plants will not be put into use for at least three years.
In the meantime, the New York Power Authority has broken ground on several of six new plants around the city. (A seventh plant is being built in Islip, on Long Island). The plants, which will cost a total of $510 million, will house 11 natural gas turbines in windowless metal buildings. Two plants with two turbines each have been sited within four blocks of each other in the South Bronx. A few other plants will also have two turbines.
The Power Authority's plans have evoked outrage from mayoral candidates, borough presidents, members of Congress, members of the City Council, and community activists of all kinds. Opponents say the agency avoided environmental reviews in an attempt to speed up construction. They did this, the critics charge, in the most blatant of ways: Any generator is subject to environmental review and community comment if it produces 80 megawatts of power; the Power Authority's generators would each generate 79.9 megawatts.
Opponents charge that the siting process also has discriminated against low-income and minority communities. They now point to a report from Governor Pataki's office, leaked to the press last month, which makes clear that the state was aware that new plants are being built exclusively in low income and minority neighborhoods.
IN THE COURTS
Earlier this month, the opponents of the power plants thought they had scored a coup in court. A State Supreme Court judge in Queens ordered the Power Authority to halt construction on one of the plants, intended to house two turbines on the Long Island City waterfront, until a full environmental review is completed. The judge said that the agency needs to take "a hard look" at several environmental issues, including the effect of digging up old pollutants and the impact of the plant on the neighborhood's residents and businesses. The case was brought by local politicians and Silvercup Studios, a film and television production company with plans to build another studio on a parcel next to the new generator.
But last week an appellate court judge ruled that construction should continue while an appellate panel reviews the case. The panel's decision is expected early this week.
And just two days after the judge in Queens issued his ruling, a State Supreme Court judge in Brooklyn ruled against a coalition of neighborhood groups who made similar arguments in challenging the rest of the plants. The judge said the power authority could continue construction, and that it had not violated any environmental laws in choosing the sites.
Mayor Giuliani, an adamant supporter of immediate plant construction, was elated. The Power Authority declared vindication.
The other side was not pleased. "The decision sends a message the process can be manipulated and maneuvered to ram projects through, particularly in low income communities or communities of color," said Gail Suchman, a lawyer with New York Lawyers for the Public Interest who represented the plaintiffs.
Some opponents of the sitings say that the power authority may indeed not have been in violation of the laws, as the Brooklyn judge concluded, but that the laws themselves are riddled with loopholes. The Department of Environmental Conservation is not even required to look at the impact of soot, charges Mathy Stanislaus, vice-chairman at the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance. Soot, or fine particulate matter, causes asthma and other respiratory illnesses. Children and the elderly are particularly susceptible to it. So to Stanislaus, it makes a gruesome kind of logic for the authorities not even to consider how much soot exists in a neighborhood already and how much would be generated from any new plants there. "If you don't look at it, you don't have to deny a permit or modify a project."
FEEDING THE BEAST
Giuliani says New York is facing "a real emergency." He has warned that the city will suffer blackouts and brownouts this summer if the plants are not built.
He is supported by state energy officials. The New York Independent Systems Operator, the agency set up after deregulation to oversee the state's network of electricity lines, says in mid-summer the city could fall short by about 400 megawatts, enough to affect 400,000 homes.
Power plant proponents say the city cannot buy enough energy from outside suppliers to meet peak demand. The city, which already imports about one-quarter of its energy, could potentially look to upstate or other out-of-town generators. But the grid that serves the metropolitan area consists of old, heavily trafficked transmission lines. Bottlenecks make it very difficult to bring in power on especially hot days, when the extra energy is needed most.
Most experts, however, do not believe there will be blackouts if the new plants are not built. What is likely, they say, is a price surge. Indeed, some who oppose the plant sitings contend that the energy crisis stems not from a shortage of supply but from an ineffective deregulation plan that allows generators to overcharge just when demand is highest.
"Last summer, the governor's plan for deregulation did not prevent price-gouging," Mathy Stanislaus says. "Rather than deal with price manipulation, he's dealing with artificially-created excess supply. We went from a highly structured system, where you have to show the need for power, to an open door. We're all asking: 'What's the plan, here?'"
Before deregulation, state energy officials fed surplus power from one area to another area in need. Now, those channels are controlled by private power merchants who sell to the highest bidder. Last summer energy imports clogged up on hot days, and local generators upped their prices. Consumers wound up paying an extra $100 million for air conditioning.
The state and city seem to be improvising their way through New York's transition to a completely deregulated market. The new plants were originally intended to be temporary, and the state environmental agency issued three-year permits for their operation. Yet, the plants may not disappear after their first term, admits Eugene Zeltmann, president of the Power Authority. Zeltmann reported to the state Assembly that the plants might be sold to private owners, who would charge whatever they could get. The Power Authority, on the other hand, says it will charge only enough to recover its costs. Zeltmann also said there may be more small plants on the way next year.
THE TALE OF TWO PLANTS
The fight over Con Ed's plan to shift power production from midtown to the Lower East Side has been getting less attention than that over the new power plants, but in some ways it is a better story.
Con Ed's Waterside plant, the steam station located just south of the United Nations, is a century-old relic from the city's industrial past. As late as 1946, it was surrounded by a visual cesspool of slaughterhouses, meatpackers and cattle pens. But, following a neighborhood regeneration instigated more than 50 years ago by legendary developer William "Big Bill" Zeckendorf -- perhaps best known for negotiating the deal that led to the Rockerfeller family's donation of land to the United Nations -- the old plant is now surrounded by a spate of high-priced highrises, including the 35-story Rivergate, the 44-story Horizon condominiums, and the 57-story Corinthian, which stands catercorner. The developers who purchased the plant -- a team that includes the Fisher family and Morgan Stanley Dean Witter -- intend to demolish the plant and build luxury highrises, hotels and upscale chain stores in its stead.
The East River facility comprises a large brick building with four smokestacks rising more than 350 feet in the air on the north side of 14th Street, and a square block of transistors and large-scale wiring on the south side. Situated on the fringe of the continuously gentrifying but decidedly lowrise East Village, it is surrounded by city housing projects and gut-renovated tenements. The neighborhood comprises about 20 percent low income families, and about 20 percent people of color, and has the second highest rate of asthma in the city. The plant itself has been out of compliance with environmental regulations for five years. The New York Public Interest Research Group has listed it as one of the highest polluting plants in the state.
Under New York's gas-and-electric deregulation scheme, Con Ed, the city's long-time monopoly, has been unloading its power plants on energy companies who want to compete in the new free markets. Waterside is the only plant that has been sold to a private developer.
To make up for steam lost at Waterside, Con Ed wants to install new steam and electricity generators on 14th Street. The repowered plant would produce three million pounds of steam/hour and 360 megawatts of electricity. Waterside currently produces 2.4 million pounds of steam and 163 megawatts of electricity.
The protesters call the move environmental racism because the damages caused by siting the industrial pollution will be suffered disproportionately by poor people or people of color. "You look where air emissions are going to be reduced, where increased, and you look at the consequence of that shift as a whole," Mathy Stanislaus explains.
Susan Steinberg, president of the East River Environmental Coalition, a group created to resist Con Ed's plan, says increasing production on 14th Street without first cleaning up there is an injustice. In a lawsuit before the state Public Service Commission's Siting Board, Steinberg claims the company failed to consider alternative sites for its new generator, as it should have done. She suggests that Con Ed look to an existing plant on 74th Street and a piece of land in Kips Bay to share the load. She says Con Ed should raise its smokestacks, stop using diesel fuel in the old part of the plant and install cleaner technologies before pushing ahead with any expansion.
The company insists East River is the only viable option. It says the 74th Street site is too small, and that the Kips Bay site was sold as part of the real estate deal. The Siting Board has ruled that an investigation of the uptown site is required, and that the sale of the Kips Bay site, which depends on government approval, is not yet a done deal.
The utility has promised to use clean, natural gas technology. Chris Olert, a spokesman, says "the equipment going into East River is state-of-the-art. We're not adding any more smokestacks. This is a super environmentally-friendly project." Con Ed says the city will see a 10 to 25 percent reduction in air pollution from what it was when the two plants were running. In addition, Con Ed maintains that closing Waterside and upping production at the 14th Street plant will result in more office and housing space, more access to the East River for midtown residents, increased tax revenues and rate stability for customers.
Their opponents are unmoved. "In every instance those [other plants] are in areas where people have greater income, and the land values are greater," says Susan Steinberg. "We object to the fact that our neighborhood is being slammed with pollution. We want Con Ed to realize that our community is not going to go away, and we're not going to take this sitting down. We want them to do something about that plant."
The comments section is provided as a free service to our readers. Gotham Gazette's editors reserve the right to delete any comments. Some reasons why comments might get deleted: inappropriate or offensive content, off-topic remarks or spam.