Pollution from west Queens plants worst in city: EPA

By Dustin Brown

Reacting to news that power plants and industries based in Queens produce more air pollution than every other borough combined, public officials and environmental activists renewed their call for new power plant construction to stop until existing facilities clean up their acts.

The federal statistics provided tangible evidence to back longstanding arguments that the high concentration of power plants in western Queens puts an undue burden of pollution on the borough.

“Unfortunately, there is no surprise here. The data reinforce what we have been saying for quite some time,” Queens Borough President Helen Marshall said in a release.

But those numbers still only tell part of the story. What remains to be seen is just how much of that pollution falls back into the neighborhoods that surround the power plants, a question with far more immediate implications for the health of Queens residents.

Numbers released this spring as part of the Environmental Protection Agency’s annual Toxics Release Inventory revealed that air emissions in Queens amounted to 467,625 pounds in the year 2000, nearly twice the 253,288 pounds released everywhere else in the city.

The EPA figures tally how much pollution is released by a select list of power producers and industrial sources that are required to report their emissions to the government. The TRI does not include other significant sources of pollution like vehicles, households and pesticides.

By far the worst source of pollution was the Charles Poletti Power Project on 20th Avenue in Astoria, which by itself spewed more air emissions than the entire rest of the city at 263,376 pounds. The borough’s five top polluters were all located in Astoria and Long Island City.

Queens’ levels eclipsed those in any of the remaining four boroughs, among which Brooklyn ranked highest at 180,506 pounds, followed by Manhattan at 29,684 pounds, Staten Island at 27,539 and the Bronx at 15,559.

But the EPA figures do not actually measure the air people breathe, only the amount of pollution released by power plants and industry. Although the borough produces far more pollution than anywhere else in the city, the emissions do not necessarily stay there.

Tony Gigantiello, the president of the Astoria-based environmental group CHOKE, is convinced there is a direct correlation between emissions spewed from borough facilities and the pollutants people breathe on the ground.

“If it’s being produced right here and it’s going into the atmosphere right here, I’m sure most of it falls back down right here and the rest of it just dissipates,” he said.

But Ray Werner, the chief of the EPA’s air programs branch in New York, said the effects of pollution tend to be far more regional in scope. Emissions dissipate into the atmosphere and spread across a wide area, he said, diluting in the air.

“What is very surprising is there’s very little difference where you measure in New York City,” Werner said. “The levels are all pretty much clustered together as opposed to, ‘Gee, they must be much higher in Astoria because we have all the power plants.’ That’s not what we’re seeing when we measure the air quality.”

But EPA figures for ambient air quality show that the worst levels in the borough are registered in western Queens, where most of the pollution is produced.

Out of five sites where air quality is measured in the borough, the station located in PS 199 at 39-20 48th Ave. in Sunnyside recorded the highest average level of airborne particulate matter in 2001 at 16.0 micrograms per cubic meter.

The numbers descend as the sites move east: Maspeth logged 15.6; Flushing, 14.1; and College Point, 13.7. Three different monitors at Queens College measured individual averages of 14.2, 13.7 and 15.4 micrograms per cubic meter.

Federal standards set 50 micrograms per cubic meter as the maximum acceptable level.

Levels in Manhattan and the Bronx were generally higher than those in Queens, while Brooklyn was comparable and Staten Island registered less polluted air.

Werner said the air quality is worst in the most heavily urbanized areas, namely Manhattan, western Queens, the South Bronx and parts of Brooklyn.

Regardless of fluctuations among neighborhoods, the overall picture for air quality across the city is bleak, Werner said. Although a three-year study initiated in 2000 is still underway, it will likely conclude that levels of ozone and fine particulate matter measured across the city are unhealthful.

“The air quality problems that we’re seeing in this metropolitan area are regional problems, not caused by or related to any specific power plant,” Werner said. “The bad part of it is the levels are all similar, but they’re all likely to be over the federal health standard. It basically shows a widespread problem.”

In Queens, Marshall reacted to the Toxic Release Inventory figures by issuing a seven-point plan to lower air pollution levels in the borough. Her recommendations demand an immediate moratorium on the approval of additional power plants in Queens and the use of new technology to clean up older facilities, as well as better air quality monitoring and an end to the use of high sulfur oil in power plants.

State Assemblyman Michael Gianaris (D-Astoria) and City Councilman Peter Vallone Jr. (D-Astoria) called on the governor to ensure that the 30-year-old Poletti plant — which is operated by the New York Power Authority, a state agency — be modernized to reduce pollution. The plant is currently slated for an expansion.

Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 154.