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The Pandemic Preys Upon Pollution’s Victims and Shows the Power Path Ahead


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Governor Cuomo near Indian Point (photo: governor's office)


A silent and invisible killer, the novel coronavirus attacks the most fundamental human function that sustains life: our ability to breathe. To breathe properly, human beings need healthy lungs and clean air, specifically oxygen. And if lungs are compromised, there’s an even greater need for clean air. 

As deaths in New York from COVID-19 surpass 17,000, those living in the pandemic epicenter face the compounding threat of substantially increased air pollution due to the imminent closure of one of the state’s largest carbon-free sources of power, the Indian Point nuclear power plant. The replacement power, largely derived from new and existing gas-fired power plants, will not only generate pollutants hazardous to human health, but will also (conservatively) emit 10-15 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs), measured in carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e), each year.

Greenhouse gases, which contribute to global warming, are invisible killers, much like COVID-19. For New Yorkers, air pollution and global warming are a double-whammy. It becomes a devastating and deadly triple-whammy for New Yorkers coping with COVID-19. If “Job one is saving lives,” as Governor Cuomo has said, then Indian Point must remain open. 

We applaud the governor’s deference to science, data, and qualified professionals in deploying bold policies to respond to the pandemic. His recent prowess for data-driven decision-making is how all policy should be formulated. “Give me the facts,” he said of his mantra at a recent press conference. Facts are indeed the best antidote to irrational fear and anxiety.

While special interest groups such as Riverkeeper have spent years fear-mongering about Indian Point specifically, and nuclear power in general, here are the simple facts. 

New York City is the second-largest consumer of power in the world, using 53 terawatt-hours per year. Indian Point generates 80% of the region’s carbon-free grid power. Generating the equivalent power from fossil fuels would increase the entire state’s electricity sector greenhouse gas emissions by 27-29%, rendering New York’s newly-enacted climate goals impossible to achieve.

“Natural” gas is mostly methane, which has 86 times the global warming potential of CO2 over a 20-year time-frame. A new analysis by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) finds methane levels at an all-time high at 1875 parts per billion, the highest levels since record-keeping began in 1983. Most alarming, however, is that last year saw the single biggest increase in two decades. This accelerating rise in GHGs is a fact that is now keeping climate scientists up at night. 

Burning fossil fuels also generates other harmful pollutants in the form of particulate matter. Fine particulates -- especially those with a diameter smaller than 2.5 microns (PM2.5) -- are particularly dangerous to the human body because they deplete lung capacity, and can pass from the lungs into the bloodstream. A new Harvard Study just released shows that long-term exposure to even a slight increase in pollution of just 1 microgram per cubic meter of PM 2.5 increases COVID mortality in a population by 15%. These results aren’t surprising. We know that comorbidities for COVID, such as hypertension, heart disease, and respiratory illness, are also associated with exposure to air pollution. 

Most methane used in New York comes from fracking in neighboring Pennsylvania. Governor Cuomo recently banned fracking (for the second time - ‘permanently’ now), citing the threats of air and water pollution that it posed to New Yorkers. However, just like COVID-19, pollution does not recognize borders. Indian Point’s closure will plug New York City directly into Pennsylvania fracking fields, ensuring that New Yorkers will face even greater adverse impacts from fracking, in spite of the ban.

But of course the greatest impact will be on New Yorkers living near those gas power plants: communities of color; the same communities disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. Data released by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) just days ago indicates that African-Americans represent 30% of COVID patients though they are only 14% of the population. Further analysis by the Associated Press found that one-third of all COVID deaths were African- American people. 

In Orange County, as COVID-19 cases skyrocket a new fracked-gas plant, CPV Valley Energy Center, prepares to ramp up when Indian Point is closed. CPV is surrounded by 14 environmental justice communities. Orange County is also home to a large number of New York City first responders, who have also been disproportionately impacted by COVID. Ironically, many of them moved to the area after September 11, 2001, specifically for its once-pristine air quality.

After losing a sustained battle to stop CPV, the community now monitors their air quality daily with devices that measure PM 2.5. They’ve seen levels spike to as high as 180 micrograms per a cubic meter. When the plant is powered off, the meters read 0 -- a rare day they can take a deep breath. With CPV prepared to provide 678 MW of Indian Point’s 2000 MW baseload power, it’s unlikely they will see days like that again. 

In New York City, the dense housing projects in the shadows of Astoria Gen, East River Gen, and Ravenswood power plants already have some of the highest asthma rates in the country, a comorbidity for COVID. They have some of the highest concentrations of COVID cases as well. Along with CPV, these dirty old power plants will likely be called upon to make up for Indian Point’s lost electricity. 

52,000 people die every year in the United States due to pollution from fossil fuel power generation, while nuclear power saves lives. Globally, by displacing fossil fuels, nuclear power has prevented more than 2 million air pollution-related deaths. While Indian Point has provided safe, reliable carbon free power for over 50 years, irrational fear peddled by fossil fuel interests has prejudiced public perception. As an ambassador of scientific truth, we urge Governor Cuomo to correct that misperception. 

The inconvenient truth is that New York plans to shut down Indian Point years before it can even hope to build enough reliable renewable power downstate, ensuring carbon lock-in for decades to come. It’s a catastrophic case of putting the cart before the horse. In the midst of a widespread pandemic and fast-approaching climate collapse it is a tragic blunder.

Melissa DeRosa, Cuomo’s executive secretary, recently commented on the importance of “being able to evolve and change in real time as facts and circumstances change.” The science is clear. Pollution plus a pandemic don’t mix. More lives will be unnecessarily sacrificed if Indian Point closes. 

COVID-19 should caution us all that the laws of the natural world supersede the laws and desires of human beings; that we exist ultimately at their mercy. We cannot bend math and physics to our will. As the 50th Earth Day remembrance just again raised awareness of an even greater looming crisis, climate change, we should use this opportunity to recalibrate and “evolve” within the mandates and limits of nature. 

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Pramilla Malick is the Chair of Protect Orange County. Jim Hansen is Director of the Climate Science, Awareness and Solutions Program at Columbia University’s Earth Institute.

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