In recent weeks, real estate players and development foes have kicked up a fuss over Con Edison’s plan to sell off a nine acre site on the East River. Because it’s in Murray Hill, residents are up in arms, Mort Zuckerman’s involved, and the property’s pricetag may run upwards of $600 million.
But what none of the activists or power brokers have noticed is that this same plan could dump more than 200 tons of airborne pollutants every year onto the Lower East Side.
In its “repowering” plan, Con Ed intends to shut down its antique power plant on 39th Street and add three new turbines to its 14th Street facility on the East River, which will generate up to 450 megawatts of power. Since these new turbines will be cleaner, more efficient, and provide more steam and more electricity, environmentalists agree that it’s a good project for the city as a whole–the air is dirty, and old power plants are a big part of the problem. “In general, it’s not a bad idea,” said Ashok Gupta, an economist and energy specialist with the Natural Resources Defense Council.
But at a rowdy public meeting last week, Stuyvesant Town and Lower East Side residents complained that with the new plan, they will have to bear more than their fair share of the city’s pollution. The existing plant on 14th Street, residents charged, is already dirty, loud and smelly–and it’s right next door to high-density public housing. Even though the new natural gas-burning plant will be much cleaner, it still puts an additional burden on the neighborhood.
“You’re centralizing the problem,” said Avenue C resident Greg Fox at the forum. “People around 14th Street worry that they will have to suffer all the combined effects of all the garbage you spew out.”
The turbines are replacing a 50-year old boiler that Con Ed shut down in 1996. But in some ways, the shiny new plant could wind up being just as bad as the old one. While sulfur and nitrogen oxide fumes will still be far below what they were, the maximum allowance for “particulate matter” emissions is nearly triple what it was with the old boiler. (Scientists think that particulate matter–the tiny pieces of crud generated from combustion–plays a crucial role in triggering asthma attacks.) Carbon monoxide levels are allowed to increase by up to 70 percent.
These figures are only a worst-case scenario, pointed out Con Ed environmental consultant Dominick Mormile. The numbers reflect what the plant would generate if it ran at 100 percent load, 100 percent of the time. “The actual emissions would probably be half that number,” he said. The actual impact on Lower East Siders is also hard to precisely measure, because where the pollution winds up depends on the height of the smokestack, the height of nearby buildings and wind patterns.
Nonetheless, Lower East Side residents will be pushing Con Edison to modify its plans and decrease emissions. “For years, my office has handled complaints about noise and air pollution from [nearby] Haven Plaza, Campos Plaza and the projects,” said Councilwoman Margarita Lopez, who is organizing local residents. “To me, this is unacceptable. The fact is, the community receiving this impact is people of color, a poor community.”