Environmental justice coalition successfully pressures New York Power Authority to  phase out ‘peaker’ plants

When the New York Power Authority (NYPA) first received approval in 2001 to build six natural-gas fired peaking power plants across the city – including two in Port Morris – without a complete environmental impact assessment, its representatives promised that the infrastructure would be temporary.

Nearly two decades later, the plants remain in operation, but the Authority is taking steps toward phasing them out for good. On Oct. 13, NYPA unveiled a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the PEAK Coalition – a network of five environmental justice organizations across the city – agreeing to transition these plants toward renewable sources of energy, such as wind, solar and battery storage.

Though their full timeline remains up in the air, the organizations hope to have the first stage of this process – which includes developing a scope of work for the process and finding a consultant and contractor to advise on its feasibility – completed by June, 2021.

Better known as “peaker plants,” these fossil fuel power plants are only run a few times each year when there’s peak demand from the city’s grid, like during extreme weather events. Despite their infrequent use, peaker plants tend to emit health-damaging pollutants like carbon dioxide and particulate matter 2.5 (PM2.5) – the latter of which penetrates the lungs and causes long-term respiratory damage – at higher rates per unit of energy generated than traditional power plants.

Emissions from the NYPA-Harlem River Yards Power Station and the Hellgate Natural Gas Power Plant are acutely felt in the South Bronx. According to an analysis by PSE Health Energy, the plants contribute to the highest cumulative environmental, health, and socioeconomic burden facing any community in the state of New York.

Graphic courtesy of New York Lawyers for the Public Interest.

“On the hottest days of the year, the most polluting power plants get turned on, and they are in the communities with worse, already, air quality or public health profiles,” said Eddie Bautista, executive director of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance (NYC-EJA), a PEAK Coalition member organization.

The South Bronx is already home to the some of the highest rates of childhood asthma hospitalizations in New York – at nearly triple that of the rest of the city. The region has also become a COVID-19 hotspot over the course of the pandemic: Asthma patients, in particular, are at increased risk of contracting the virus, while high exposure to PM2.5 has been linked to COVID-19 mortality. Opponents of the peaker plants say this infrastructure is partially to blame.

“They’re putting a lot of environmental pressure on communities,” said Rebecca Bratspies, founding director of the CUNY Center for Urban Environmental Reform. “That’s one of the reasons that you have such high asthma rates in these communities, is because of all the pollution from the peaker plants.”

Yet, despite bearing the brunt of power plant emissions burdens, communities like those in Mott Haven and Port Morris reap few of the benefits, Bratspies said. Among other things, peaker plants primarily help run air conditioners across the city during heat waves, something an estimated 50% of New York City Housing Authority residents – nearly 95,000 in the Bronx alone – do not have access to.

The move comes a little over a year after New York State passed the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA), a series of climate targets that have been called the most ambitious in the country. Dariella Rodriguez, West Farms resident and director of community development at The Point CDC – a member group of the PEAK Coalition – believes eliminating peaker plants is a strong first step toward accomplishing these goals.

“Now more than ever we know the negative impact of built environments and infrastructure on the lives of New Yorkers, especially those in [environmental justice] communities, which are also our black, brown, immigrant communities,” Rodriguez said in a statement. Phasing out the plants will bring the South Bronx closer to achieving “just living conditions for our most vulnerable,” she said.

Monxo Lopez, Mott Haven resident and co-founding member of grassroots advocacy group South Bronx Unite, is heartened to see NYPA take the concerns of communities facing environmental injustices seriously after years of pressure, but he says the move is hardly enough. He hopes to see the Authority take a more proactive approach toward repairing the damage both plants have caused to his neighborhood over the last two decades.

“They’re not the best neighbors,” Lopez said of the plants. “I think we have a right to demand for [NYPA] to reinvest that money not in their stocks, but back into the communities that they have harmed for so long.” 

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