Bronx’s Asthma Alley Protests Plans to Extend Power Plant Permits

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At left, the Harlem River plants. At right and in the distance is an older plant in Astoria that regulators claim would have to produce more power, and pollution, if the South Bronx plants shut down.

Adi Talwar

At left, the Harlem River plants. At right and in the distance is an older plant in Astoria that regulators claim would have to produce more power, and pollution, if the South Bronx plants shut down.

If you’ve turned on an air conditioner or flipped a light switch during a sweltering summer day in the Bronx, you’ve used energy from two natural gas power plants that were originally supposed to close over a decade ago.

In 2001, the two Harlem River Yard units were located in the Port Morris area of the South Bronx with the promise that they would be temporary. Now, 14 years later, the New York Power Authority, which own and operate the plants, wants to extend the facilities’ operating permits that are set to expire on Jan. 9.

But South Bronx Unite, a coalition of residents, is fighting back. The group is petitioning to have the plants shuttered because, the coalition says, they contribute to the borough’s notoriously bad air quality.

“But the pollution is not restricted to the Bronx. The wind blows the pollutants in all directions,” says Frank Eadie, chair of the energy committee of the Sierra Club’s New York City branch. “We need to deal with the whole city, the whole state, not just the local people around that particular site. It’s not just a single borough that’s involved here, it’s all of us.”

Because of the pending permit renewals, South Bronx Unite is requesting a public-comment hearing by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, with the hope that it will lead to the plants’ permanent closure. According to the department, an administrative law judge would facilitate the hearing and a stenographer would record comments on the proposed renewals. The department will decide whether to hold a hearing by Nov. 27.

The facilities are peaking plants that were built to supply a cushion during days of high energy demand, the units generate 79.9 megawatts of power to the Bronx and surrounding neighborhoods – that’s enough juice for approximately 80,000 homes.

Originally, the plants were described by public officials as a temporary measure to avert summer power outages until permanent facilities could be built to increase the power grid’s reliability. But the DEC continued to renew the Harlem River Yard plants’ permits despite the construction of additional units in the New York City area.

The plants are wedged between the traffic-heavy Robert F. Kennedy Bridge and the New York Post printing plant, and face the Bronx Kill, a narrow channel of water that separates the Bronx from Randall’s Island.

“The land the plants are on is very lucrative waterfront real estate owned by the state and yet we seem to have no input in its use,” said Harry Bubbins, director of Friends of Brook Park, a community-based environmental group affiliated with South Bronx Unite. “Instead we have a hodgepodge of polluting industries.”

In addition to the two Harlem River Yard plants, just blocks away are two other natural gas plants and nine waste transfer stations. Nonstop truck traffic passes through on its way to the Hunts Point Cooperative Market, the country’s largest food distribution center. In place of a peaceful waterfront is the stench of garbage and the dull hum of electrical equipment.

Due to the infamously poor air quality, locals have dubbed the area “asthma alley,” and for good reason. A 2014 study by the state comptroller found that the Bronx has the highest asthma death rate in all of New York state with 43 deaths per million residents; the state average is 13 deaths per million.

Although cleaner than other fossil fuels like coal, natural gas does produce nitrogen oxide. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, nitrogen oxide is a precursor to smog and causes respiratory inflammation.

When mixed with moisture, ammonia – a chemical used at the plants — and other compounds, nitrogen oxide forms particles that penetrate deep into the lungs. This can cause or worsen respiratory diseases such as emphysema, bronchitis and asthma.

“Just imagine if this was happening on Fifth Avenue or in Brooklyn,” says Bubbins. “The officials would be tremendously outraged on behalf of their community.”

But local politicians aren’t exactly calm about the plants. Councilmember Maria del Carmen Arroyo and Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, whose district includes a slice of the area, wrote a joint letter to the Department of Environmental Conservation reinforcing the need for a public comment hearing.

While the DEC has yet to decide on a hearing, South Bronx Unite recently hosted a meeting with representatives from the New York Power Authority at the Bronx Art Space in Mott Haven.

For more than two hours, in a room slightly larger than a two-car garage, some 30 people sat huddled in a circle on hard plastic chairs discussing the power plants.

Arroyo was one of the first to voice her concerns.

“I challenge the Power Authority to do things differently and to discuss possible alternative methods,” she said. “I believe you have the wherewithal to do that and we’re looking for a commitment from you so we can turn our lights on without creating a mess.”

When asked about renewable energy alternatives, Jill Anderson, senior vice president of public affairs and business development at the New York Power Authority, said the authority is installing solar throughout the state, but that it’s not an alternative for the Harlem River Yard plants. Nor is wind power.

“It’s a reliability issue,” said Anderson. “You can’t force the sun to shine or the wind to blow.”
Anderson also argued that closing the Bronx plants would actually have a negative environmental impact because it would force the state to rely more on other, dirtier plants.

“If we were to decommission it, it would result in higher emissions and higher electric costs,” she explained. “The power plants in Queens would run more often and are significantly dirtier than any of the plants we’re talking about here.” *

While Eadie agrees that it is unlikely solar energy will generate the same level of power the current plants produce, he insists there are cleaner alternatives.

“The city is actually installing renewables, or quasi-renewables, at an exponentially increasing rate. It’s more than doubling every year,” he says. “For example, Con Ed is going to batteries rather than peaking plants.”

This fall, Consolidated Edison, which distributes electricity generated by the Harlem River Yard plants to its customers, commissioned a lithium ion battery storage system to help meet temporary needs during times of high energy demand. The battery can store 500 kilowatts, or half of one megawatt.

Instead of maintaining power plants devoted to peak energy use, batteries simply store electricity from the city’s power grid until it’s needed and eventually fed back into the network. The batteries employ a more efficient use of electricity and are a way to reduce reliance on hazardous peaking plants.

According to Eadie, computer operated facilities could monitor dozens of batteries. Once a battery is drained of energy, simply recharge it and it’s ready for the next day.

“They can take the place of power plants that are so polluting, there’s just no need for them,” says Eadie.

At the meeting, several South Bronx Unite members expressed frustration over what they say is the New York Power Authority’s lack of transparency. Among them was Eileen Walsh, 47, who lives just a block away from the power plants. Later, she gave a tour of the area.

“You know, it’s frustrating: Any company can make their project sound good, but we have so many polluting things here,” Walsh said. “They can say ‘Well, our plants are clean,’ but they’re right next door to many other things.”

To Walsh and other activists, the power plants are part of a larger environmental burden born by the neighborhood, thanks to industrial activity, truck traffic on local streets and the highways that cut through the area. As Walsh approached the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge, the air was cloudy with dust and a sharp acetone smell burned our noses.

“When you walk down here you can feel it. You’re breathing so much exhaust it’s unbelievable,” she said.

* Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly reported that Ms. Anderson was referring to the New York Power Authority’s 500-megawatt natural gas plant in Astoria, and the 575-megawatt Astoria Energy II plant, which is independently owned but sells its output to the New York Power Authority. In fact, she was referring to other facilities in Queens not owned by or operated in conjunction with NYPA. City Limits regrets the error.

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City Limits’ coverage of the Bronx is supported by the New York Community Trust.
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