Krysia Holowacz knows dirty. A former resident of Eastern Europe who
emigrated to the U.S. in the 1970s, she's seen what industrial
pollution can do to a once pristine landscape.
So when she drives her car down a semi-paved street that dead-ends 12
feet above the blackened waters of Newtown Creek, the waterway that
separates Greenpoint from Long Island
City, it's hard not to notice the awe.
"Can you believe this?" asks Holwacz, rising out of the car, holding
her arms wide, and struggling to be heard over a pair of cranes lifting
demolished cars off a nearby scrap metal barge.
The view is, indeed, awe-inspiring. Picture the Thames River at its
Dickensian worst, only replace the tanneries and rendering plants with
asphalt recovery and waste transfer stations, and you'll get a pretty
good idea. Fortunately, it's a view few New Yorkers ever experience.
Nearly two centuries of continuous industrial development and the
quirky street patterns of the Brooklyn-Queens border combine to make this one
of the least-accessible portions of the city.
That's one reason Mayor Michael
Bloomberg, in a radio address earlier
this month, offered Newtown Creek as a compromise
site for a new 1,100 megawatt TransGas Energy power plant.
Originally slated for the East River side of the neighborhood, the
plant has drawn stiff opposition from local groups and environmental
advocates who would like to see the East River waterfront cleaned up.
SAVVY COMPROMISE, OR DEVIL'S BARGAIN
Politically speaking, the mayor's compromise is a savvy move. Exchanging one
site for another opens up
the two mile Williamsburg-Greenpoint waterfront to residential
redevelopment -- a move the mayor thinks will lure billions of dollars
into the local economy. At the same time, it offers an easy solution to the
city's pressing energy needs.
But for local activists like Holawacz, who lives in Greenpoint, the compromise
environmental equivalent of the devil's bargain: As much as she wants a
clean riverfront with more open space for parks, Holowacz, a community
liaison for the Newtown Creek Water Pollution Control Plant who already
fields plenty of complaints over that plant's ongoing expansion,
recoils at the thought of adding yet another source of toxic
emissions to this already-beleaguered corner of Greenpoint.
"This community is inundated," says Holowacz. "We get all the
all the paper and all the scrap metal. You can't put everything the
city needs into one corner."
Officially, the decision on where to put
the TransGas plant isn't the
mayor's to make. That power resides at the state level, where Governor
George Pataki has expressed support for new power plants as a way to meet
city's surging energy demand and decrease dependence on the regional
grid. In May, the mayor's office threw its weight behind the
neighborhood groups and developers who have opposed the siting of a
power plant near Bushwick Inlet on the grounds that it would foil
ongoing efforts to redevelop the Greenpoint-Williamsburg riverfront
from industrial to residential use.
"This administration recognizes the need for new power plants and
transmission lines," noted Daniel Doctoroff, deputy mayor for economic
development and rebuilding, in a July 15 editorial for the Daily News." [But]
when a power plant comes into conflict with a historic chance to
rezone the waterfront to develop a 2-mile waterside walkway and create
much-needed housing (both affordable and market-rate), it is in the
city's best interest to find a more suitable location to benefit all
In the final week of September, the mayor's office thought it
that when it talked ExxonMobil, current owner of a derelict storage
facility located on Kingsland Ave. a half mile downstream from the
Kosciusko Bridge, into possibly selling the lot to TransGas as an
SITE OF LARGE OIL SPILL
The deal is a tenuous one. The new site carries heavy legal baggage. In
the 1950s and 1960s it was the site of the nation's largest underground
oil spill; more than 17 million gallons seeped out of tanks and pipes
and into an underground aquifer, a multi-year discharge that wasn't
detected until the Coast Guard noticed a major oil plume in the creek
in the late 1970s. In 1989 Mobil (now ExxonMobil) assumed cleanup
responsibilities but according to an August report in the Polish Daily
News has removed only about two million gallons to date. At that rate, the
site will be fully remediated by 2030.
"You're talking about a discharge larger than the Exxon Valdez," says
Riverkeeper legal investigator Basil Seggos, likening the 52 acre site
to the famous 11 million gallon oil spill in Alaska in 1991. "You're
talking about water pollution. You're talking about hydrostatic
pressure of a new plant and trucks possibly extending the plume.
Neighborhood activists have
concerns beyond underground oil. For the last 15 years, Greenpoint and
Williamsburg residents have been united in their effort
to rezone and redevelop the two mile East River waterfront. To
accommodate this rezoning, they've agreed to leave new
industrial development along Newtown Creek.
"Every city has an industrial area, and we decided that is our
industrial area," says Joe Vance, co- chair of the Greenpoint
Waterfront Association for Parks and Planning. "We'd certainly like to
see the pollution cleaned up, but we'd like to keep that area
industrial. The city needs the jobs. There's lots of really good
companies, there. We don't want to see them go."
DIVIDING THE COMMUNITY
At the same time, Vance and other rezoning advocates fear the
psychological impact of adding a power plant to a neighborhood that is
already dealing with the expansion of the Newtown Creek sewage
treatment facility. Soon to be the city's largest, the plant and its
many odors have already prompted grumbles over residents on one side of the neighborhood
selling out their
poorer neighbors on the other.
"What you're doing is dividing the community along McGuiness Avenue,"
says Community Board 1 rezoning task force chairman Christopher
Olechowski. "If [the mayor's plan] goes forward, it sets up kind of an
imbalance in the community. It favors a waterfront rezone for market
rate development but leaves the other side of the community as sort of
a second tier segment."
For this reason, community activists and their
around the city have been hesitant to endorse the mayor's compromise.
Still, Olechowski says even silence can come across as a tacit
endorsement compared to the relative outcry over the East River site.
"I haven't heard any strong voices from any of the elected officials
saying, 'We won't tolerate this,'" Olechowski says. "Maybe it's
something I've missed, but I haven't seen it, yet."
David Yassky, the
councilmember whose district includes Greenpoint,
opposes the original siting plan but has yet to give the mayor's
compromise proposal much thought.
"If somebody wants to put a power plant on the Exxon Mobil site they're
going to have to file hundreds of pages of documents on what the
environmental impact's going to be," Yassky says. "At this point,
really isn't far enough along for me to be able to comment."
activists and environmental groups, meanwhile, are trying
to make sure the issue doesn't get to that point. Riverkeeper
is set to announce a fresh series of lawsuits aimed at companies it says
currently the leading polluters along Newtown Creek. Neighborhood
activists, meanwhile, are recycling the same arguments used against the
original plant site.
"Why not upgrade existing power plants just like they're upgrading the
sewer plant?" says Holowacz, noting that a number of local, oil-burning
plants could gain increased efficiency while reducing toxic emissions
if they switched to natural gas as a fuel source. "It's basically the
same law, and yet they're not doing it."
With the recent blackout, however,
energy companies like TransGas hold
a momentary edge. The city's demand for power is growing, and August's
power outage will still be fresh in minds of voters going to the polls
next November. Even though the outage was the result of supply problems
outside the city, the time has never been better, politically at least,
to push for local plants.
Vance says the neighborhood still has the strength
to hold its
ground even without the real estate developers that helped foil the
East River site.
"Greenpoint used to be the weakest link," he says. "Politicians
at a map wondering where they could put something and get the least
fallout always pointed here. That began to change in 2000 with the
ConEd/Keyspan plant vote."
At the same time, Vance says, it will take
a concerted effort to make
sure that neighbors who see riverfront redevelopment as a community-wide
issue also see Newtown Creek's overloaded banks in a similar light.
"People throw around the term 'Not In My Backyard'," Vance says. "But
the East River was
our front yard, and we can't put anything more in the backyard, because
it's full. I challenge anybody to find any community in the city that
has more citywide projects like this."
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