South Williamsburg will soon become home to a 79.9 megawatt power plant courtesy of NYC Energy (NYCE), with stacks lower than some of the surrounding buildings, set on a barge to be located on the west side of Wallabout Channel. It will be in front of a little park on Kent and Division Avenue, 225 feet from other parks, schools, and residential buildings. In one year alone, the plant will emit 148 tons of cancer- and asthma-causing pollutants into an area already burdened by an industrial past, with the third highest rate of asthma in New York State.
In the ensuing months, New York power authority (NYPA) plans to build an additional ten smaller power plants, referred to as peaking facilities, which will supply a much needed 440 megawatts of additional electricity, intended to address summer blackouts while large power plants are renovated. These peaking facilities, or turbines, which NYPA states will employ the best environmental control technology available, are planned for neighborhoods throughout the city. One of these will be on River Street and N. 1st, and is expected to begin operating this summer.
On September 13, 2000, a resident of South Williamsburg accidentally found out that NYCE, a private company, was just about to be issued a permit from the United States Army Corps of Engineers to place a 220 by 90 foot floating power barge called NISA Electric Generation Project in Wallabout Channel. Simon Lee only discovered the plans when he went to the Army Corps of Engineers to get a permit to dock his boat in the same channel. Although the Department of Environmental Conservation put out a legal notice telling area residents about the project, it was not well publicized; unaware residents thus missed the September 8 open comment period deadline set by City Quality Environmental Review procedure. After that date, the Department of Environmental Protection issued some of the permits needed to place the facility.
Stop the Barge, a North Brooklyn environmental group, immediately lobbied and was given a legislative hearing on December 12, in which 700 people turned out to voice their concerns. Three days later the permits were granted, suggesting that the decision to place the NISA Project in the Wallabout Channel had been made before the neighborhood’s December 12 hearing. This left many residents to wonder why they were not better informed of the project or included in planning for the placement of the facility. As Deborah Masters, director of Stop the Barge, says, “Our argument is that there has been no plan. They should come to a community where they are going to place these things and they should carefully choose a location. There is no community review—nobody comes and talks to the community from these groups.” Also unaddressed, Masters notes, is the question of why a power plant is being placed in the center of a residential area to begin with.
The facility, originally planned for the center of the Brooklyn Yard at Pier D in Community Board 2, was moved to Wallabout Channel, which borders Community Board 1, when a pier collapsed at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and NYCE decided it would be better suited for Wallabout Channel anyway.
Unfortunately, the environmental review NTCE performed and the permits they were granted based on this review were all for the center of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, far enough away from residential areas so as not to be much of a problem. NYCE never did a review for the Wallabout Channel neighborhood because the company thought that it was close enough to the original site to make such a review redundant. By law they were not required to either.
The public Service Commission, the electrical authority in New York State, requires that all companies building power plants over 80 megawatts must provide the community where they will be placed with an environmental assessment. They have to allot a portion of their budget to the community so that they can hire environmental experts that can give them technical advice on how the plant will physically affect them. All the power facilities discussed are below this limit and are designed to bypass Public Service Commission guidelines, which can easily take six months to complete.
NYPA did do an environmental review of their facilities themselves and declared all 11 sites to be environmentally safe in one review. The Department of Environmental Conservation held hearings for each site, but they were all on the same night and at the same time, and were rarely in the neighborhoods where the plants will be. Community groups had to create and distribute thousands of flyers in Yiddish, Spanish, and English in order to tell residents of the hearings, and then had to hire buses to get them there.
Stop the Barge is planning a lawsuit against NYCE in hopes of getting the barge moved back to the center of the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Together with other community groups, they are seeking to at least have a conversation with NYPA about the placement of these power plants within their communities. Joseph Leary, spokesperson for New York Power Authority said, “There were a number of technical criteria that drove us to these sites: land, gas, and electric. Some had to be identified because of the technical nature by Con Ed. It wasn’t like any area would do. Many of the sites are in industrial areas. We did reach out to the communities, had public meetings, met with community boards and public officials.” Still, several local activists feel that their voices were not fully heard in the process.
Community groups are also planning to propose citywide conservation efforts, at least until the larger plants are restored, therefore eliminating the need for so many peaking facilities. Paul Sperduto, a member of a group associated with Citizens United for Responsible Energy, argues, “It is not a ‘not in my backyard’ issue. It is an overall need issue. We contest the need for these plants at all. We would like to see non-generation solutions such as conservation, re-powering existing facilities and fuel cells.” Conservation is the answer for Stop the Barge as well. Masters hopes “to prove to them that we can easily conserve that much power immediately. They can do trade-offs with companies to not operate [during] peak periods.” NYPA’s Leary, though, is not optimistic that this can be done in short order: “The situation that we are facing now is that by this summer we will need the extra electricity. The possibility of [re-powering existing facilities, conservation, and using fuel cells] by then would be difficult. These are things we are looking at and we are obviously into efficiency but I do not think that it is a realistic goal by this summer.”
Stop the Barge, however, does not seem hopeful that NYPA would ever agree to conservation efforts. The company has already purchased all ten turbines from General Electric and procured the necessary permits, and now plans to move forward with the installations. Both NYPA and private electric companies such as NYCE are solving the immediate problem, the need for more energy by this summer, with actions that appear to residents to be ill planned and reactionary. They seem to be overlooking the larger issue. With the Pataki-era deregulation of energy, there is no one to oversee and plan where and when facilities will need to be re-powered, distribution grids upgraded, and conservation efforts employed.
Anyone wishing to help Stop the Barge should visit their website at www.stopthebarge.org. They are planning an art auction to raise money for their lawsuit and are in need of all sorts of help. You can email them from the website.
Bridget Terry is a contributing writer for the Brooklyn Rail.