Residents in The Bronx’s “Asthma Alley” ask the New York Power Authority to commit to transition off of costly fossil fuel-burning power plants.

Liz Donovan

Community members and environmental activists demand a shut-down of four “peaker plants” in Mott Haven and Port Morris during a rally March 3.

Climate activists, local legislators and community organizers gathered Sunday morning in the South Bronx to protest the continued use of so-called “peaker plants” as New York State shifts to renewable energy.

The demonstration follows a letter sent to Gov. Kathy Hochul and two state agencies by advocacy group South Bronx Unite and other community groups and cosigned by legislators, including senators Alessandra Biaggi, Gustavo Rivera and Jose Serrano, Jr.

State Assemblymember Amanda Septimo, who also signed the letter, spoke at the demonstration, asking the New York Power Authority, which operates the natural gas-fueled “peaker plants” in Port Morris and Mott Havento commit to closing the facilities and to disclose a timeline for doing so.

The plants, which are powered by fossil fuels, are widely criticized for being dirty and expensive sources of energy. They are intended to supplement the energy supply on especially hot or cold days, when New Yorkers’ energy usage is higher than normal, hence the colloquial name “peaker.”

The four plants in The Bronx were built in 2001—and are more efficient than some of the city’s other dozen and a half peakers, several of which date back to the 1950s and ’60s. But the plants were originally intended to be temporary, advocates say, and more than 20 years later, Bronx residents claim that their continued use has contributed to higher-than-average asthma rates in neighborhoods already plagued with highways and waste transfer facilities. The high rates of respiratory illness has garnered the South Bronx the nickname “asthma alley.”  

“We know that environmental racism has ensured that communities like these have suffered from these polluting facilities,” said Peggy Shepard, executive director of WE ACT for Environmental Justice, at the Sunday rally.

New York Power Authority is part of Clean Path NY, a partnership that is set to bring renewable energy into the state via a 1,300 megawatt, 176-mile high-voltage direct current power superhighway from Delaware County to New York City. It was one of two proposals that Gov. Hochul awarded contracts to through the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA)in September. The project approvals come as the state approaches its deadline to reach a target of 70 percent renewable energy by 2030, as outlined in the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, which was signed into law in 2019.

In its letter, South Bronx Unite asked the governor and the state’s Department of Public Service (DPS) to mandate the decommission of peaker plants.

A spokesperson with NYPA said that the company has already started a study to inform the transition of its plants to low- or zero-carbon emission sources by 2035 while still generating enough energy to supply the city’s demand. In an email on Feb. 28, the company’s vice president of environmental justice offered to meet with organizers to discuss the study results when completed.  

In 2020, NYPA announced it would work with the PEAK Coalition, a partnership of five nonprofit groups dedicated to environmental justice and renewable energy, to move to cleaner energy sources. 

“NYPA, as the largest state public power organization in the nation, is helping to lead the transition, in line with the State’s climate action goals, to move power generation in New York State to a system with a reduced carbon footprint while keeping the lights on through reliable, resilient generation, transmission, and energy efficiency services,” the spokesperson said in a statement.

Members of the PEAK Coalition are advocating in support of the Pollution Justice Act of 2021, which would require utility companies to submit a plan outlining their plan to close peaker facilities. “Government can play a critical role in accelerating the full-scale retirement of peakers and to ensure that they’re replaced with truly renewable and reliable energy sources,” they wrote a in City Limits’ oped earlier this month. 

The company’s Clean Path NY project had previously garnered mistrust from residents of the South Bronx when community members noticed that the proposal called for the placement of a high-voltage battery converter station in the South Bronx Terminal Mall, a high foot-traffic area that’s  across the street from the newly renovated Bronx Children’s Museum.

Critics included Cesar Yoc, founder of the Bronx Institute for Urban Systems, who published a report citing studies that linked exposure to electromagnetic fields and high-voltage AC transmission lines to childhood cancer clusters.

In August, Rep. Ritchie Torres negotiated with the company, which agreed to move the battery station to an industrial area of Astoria, Queens. The new proposal, with the location of the converter station now redacted, was awarded state contracts, along with the Champlain Hudson Power Express, another project which will funnel renewable energy from Quebec, Canada. Together, the two projects will produce enough energy to heat 2.5 million homes, and the companies will invest about $460 in community projects, according to NYSERDA.

But advocates want to see the state take more aggressive action to also ensure the transition away from fossil fuel-powered plants isn’t overlooked as the state progresses in adding renewable energy options..

“New York State has an unprecedented opportunity to reset the balance of what environmental justice means,” said Bob Fanuzzi of the Bronx Council for Environmental Quality.

“We have a choice in front of us,” he added. “We can seek solutions to climate change through change or seek it through more of the same.”

Letter to Hochul and NYSERDA re: Bronx peaker plants by Jeanmarie Evelly on Scribd

Liz Donovan is a Report for America corps member.