Environmental Racism is Alive and Well in New York’s Capital

Plans to place a 16 MW fracked gas power plant in the Sheridan Hollow neighborhood of Albany is environmental racism, plain and simple. Governor Cuomo proposes to fund the plant that would heat and power the Capitol, the Empire State Plaza (ESP) and other government buildings with $89 million of taxpayer dollars. The problem is, that the power plant will send pollution into the air in the densely populated Sheridan Hollow/Arbor Hill community.

Environmental racism is the disproportionate exposure of communities of color and low-income communities to environmental burdens and toxic hazards. Sheridan Hollow, and neighboring Arbor Hill are such communities. They are predominantly black and low-income and have seen more than their share of environmental hazards.

A long history of pollution

In 1911 the Sheridan Avenue Steam Plant (SASP) burned coal on Sheridan Avenue to make steam to heat the Capitol and other government buildings. The plant continues to heat and cool the Capitol and Empire State Plaza (ESP), now burning fracked gas. A backup generator next to the SASP burns diesel fuel. This generator is tested on a regular basis and sends plumes of bluish black smoke into a row of houses down the block. Neighbors complain of headaches, burning eyes and noise when the generators are being tested.

The ANSWERS garbage incinerator was built next door to the SASP in 1981, sending pollution and toxics such as lead into the air and covering the neighborhood with soot. Trucks carried garbage through the residential streets to be burned at the plant. Although community opposition to the plant continued for years, the plant wasn’t closed until 1994 when black soot landed on the white snow in front of the governor’s mansion, about a mile away.

Just recently the city built a parking garage for state workers on Sheridan Avenue, increasing traffic and adding to air pollution in the community.

Sheridan Hollow is part of the Arbor Hill neighborhood and close to the Hudson River. Wind would bring the smoke stack emissions from the proposed new power plant across the river into an environmental justice neighborhood of Rensselaer, adding to the pollution from the Rensselaer Co-Gen 645 MW plant. Oil trains and diesel trucks spew pollution in the nearby South End neighborhood. All of these low-lying communities have been designated by the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) as Environmental Justice Communities.

A Call for Environmental Justice

Environmental justice is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies. Environmental Justice (EJ) will be achieved when everyone enjoys the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards and equal access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn, and work (EPA).

The New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) created an EJ program in 1999 after pressure from environmental justice advocates around the state. Residents and advocates demanded meaningful public participation, access to information early in the permit process for projects with an environmental impact, and that environmental justice concerns be included in the environmental impact assessment review of projects in their community. They also demanded an equitable distribution of environmental benefits (community gardens, green space. etc.) and that DEC be proactive in enforcement efforts for those who violated environmental conservation laws in EJ communities.

The Sheridan Avenue Power Plant is contrary to environmental justice

There was no meaningful community participation in the planning process. The New York Power Authority (NYPA) held listening sessions only after it had prepared detailed plans and sent out the Request for Proposals (RFP) for the project. Funding was obtained from New York State before the community was even notified of the proposal.

Accurate information was not provided to the community. For example, residents were told that NYPA had reviewed renewable options for the micro-grid and renewables weren’t feasible, but when the Sheridan Hollow Alliance for Renewable Energy (SHARE) submitted a FOIL request for the renewable review, NYPA stated that no such information existed.

The health burden of the new plant falls directly on EJ communities of Albany and Rensselaer, while the heat and power produced will benefit the state government and state workers. NYPA claims that the new plant will be more efficient and therefore, less hazardous than the current SASP. However, it will burn more gas and expand the amount of carbon dioxide each year by over 36,000 tons. According to NYPA, the project would reduce nitrogen oxide (NOX) and carbon monoxide levels by 15 to 20%, however, even if this is true, these are nominal improvements and the community will continue to be exposed to pollution long into the future.

The community has not been protected from environmental hazards. There is no reason to expect that the community will be protected from environmental hazards from the proposed plant. A good example of the lack of enforcement and disregard of environmental standards is the continued operation of the toxic and noisy diesel back-up generator. It has tormented the neighbors with toxic smoke and noise, probably in violation of the operating permit, yet DEC has not corrected the problem.

EJ communities disproportionally suffer the impacts of global warming and are least prepared to deal with the consequences.

Holding the community hostage

In an attempt to gain neighborhood support of the project, NYPA promised if the new powerplant is built that the back-up generator would be replaced and residents would be allowed to shelter in the ESP in event of a climate disaster. However, there is no excuse to delay replacement of the back-up generator while options are being explored to power the ESP with renewables. Immediate action must be taken to reduce the exposure of residents to pollution from the existing steam plant and backup generator even if the proposed project doesn’t go forward. Also, the EPS is close to Sheridan Hollow, It would be outrageous if residents weren’t allowed to shelter in the plaza in case of an emergency.

Burning fossil fuels is dangerous to the health

Fracked gas is primarily methane. Methane leaks and is occasionally vented into the air to release gas pressure in the plant. Toxics like lead, mercury, radon and other contaminates can be organically bound to methane. Burning methane releases carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides (NOx), fine particulate matter, volatile organic compounds (VOC) and a long list of hazardous air pollutants. Methane and carbine dioxide are greenhouse gases, which are causing global warming and the climate crisis.

A study of New York gas compressor stations, (which are similar in size to the proposed power plant) found that by volume, the largest emissions are NO2, CO, VOCs, formaldehyde, and particulate matter. Exposure to these chemicals can cause respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, neurological and developmental diseases and cancer. Nitrogen oxides (NOx) emissions, and particulate matter can burn lung tissue and can make people more susceptible to asthma, bronchitis, and other chronic respiratory diseases. The impacts are particularly severe among the young, the elderly, and those who already suffer from respiratory disease.

Black Americans are subjected to higher levels of air pollution than white Americans regardless of their wealth according to a March 2018 EPA study. Researchers found that black Americans were exposed to significantly more of the small particle pollution, which have been associated with lung disease, heart disease, and premature death.

Environmental Justice demands that no one should live near a toxic hot-spot and every family should have a healthy environment. Environmental and climate policy needs to protect and benefit environmental justice communities by reducing toxic hotspots, implementing strong regulatory measures, and speeding our transition off fossil fuels.

Renewable sources of energy are better for the climate, produce less pollution and create more jobs. Environmental justice communities must play a central leadership role in the transition to renewable energy so the most vulnerable communities can share the benefits of our new energy future.

 

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