Residents of Bronx’s “Asthma Alley” are calling on the New York Power Authority to pledge to phase out expensive fossil fuel power plants.
Climate activists, local lawmakers and community organizers gathered in the South Bronx on Sunday morning to protest the continued use of so-called ‘peak factories’ as New York State transitions to renewable energy .
The protest follows a letter sent to Governor Kathy Hochul and two state agencies by the South Bronx Unite advocacy group and other community groups and co-signed by lawmakers including Senators Alessandra Biaggi, Gustavo Rivera and Jose Serrano , Jr.
State Assemblywoman Amanda Septimo, who also signed the letter, spoke at the protest, asking the New York Power Authority, which operates the natural gas-powered “peak plants” in Port Morris and Mott Havento to commit to closing the facilities and to disclose a timetable for doing so.
The power stations, 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 particularly hot or cold days when New Yorkers’ energy consumption is higher than normal, hence the colloquial name “peaker”.
The Bronx’s four factories were built in 2001 and are more efficient than some of the city’s other dozen-and-a-half state-of-the-art factories, several of which date back to the 1950s and 1960s. But the factories were originally intended to be temporary, say advocates, and more than 20 years later Bronx residents say their continued use has contributed to above-average asthma rates in neighborhoods already plagued by freeways and waste transfer facilities. High rates of respiratory disease have earned the South Bronx the nickname “asthma alley.”
“We know that environmental racism has caused communities like these to suffer from these polluting facilities,” said Peggy Shepard, executive director of WE ACT for Environmental Justice, at Sunday’s rally.
The New York Power Authority is part of Clean Path NY, a partnership that aims to bring renewable energy to the state via a 1,300-megawatt, 176-mile high-voltage DC highway from Delaware County to New York . It was one of two proposals Governor Hochul awarded contracts through the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) in September. The project approvals come as the state nears its deadline to achieve a goal of 70% 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 order the peaking plants to be dismantled.
A NYPA spokesperson said the company has already launched a study to inform the transition of its factories to low or zero carbon emissions sources by 2035 while generating enough energy to meet the request from the city. In a Feb. 28 email, the company’s vice president of environmental justice offered to meet with the organizers to discuss the study’s results when completed.
In 2020, NYPA announced that it would work with the PEAK Coalition, a partnership of five nonprofit groups dedicated to environmental justice and renewable energy, to shift to cleaner energy sources.
“NYPA, as the nation’s largest state public energy organization, is helping lead the transition, consistent with the state’s climate action goals, to move power generation in the state from New York toward a low carbon footprint system while keeping lights on with reliable and resilient generation, transmission and energy efficiency services,” the spokesperson said in a statement.
Members of the PEAK coalition are advocating for the Pollution Justice Act of 2021, which would require utility companies to submit a plan outlining their plan for closing peak facilities. “Government can play a vital role in accelerating the large-scale retirement of woodpeckers and to ensure they are replaced by truly renewable and reliable energy sources,” they wrote in an article published by City Limits earlier this month.
The company’s Clean Path NY project had previously sparked suspicion among South Bronx residents 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 crosses the street from the newly renovated Bronx Children’s Museum.
Among the critics was Cesar Yoc, founder of the Bronx Institute for Urban Systems, who released a report citing studies linking EMF exposure from high-voltage AC transmission lines to clusters of childhood cancers.
In August, Representative Ritchie Torres negotiated with the company, which agreed to move the battery station to an industrial area in Astoria, Queens. The new proposal, with the converter station location now redacted, secured state contracts, as well as the Champlain Hudson Power Express, another project that will channel renewable energy from Quebec, Canada. Together, the two projects will generate 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 steps to also ensure that the transition from fossil fuel power plants isn’t overlooked as the state moves forward in adding renewable energy options.
“New York State has an unprecedented opportunity to redress the balance of what environmental justice means,” said Bob Fanuzzi of the Bronx Council for Environmental Quality.
“We have a choice before 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 regarding Bronx Peak Plants by Jeanmarie Evely on Scribd
Liz Donovan is a member of the Report for America body.