By Dustin Brown
Community leaders who have long fought the proliferation of power plants in western Queens released an air quality study last Thursday that backed up many of their fears, listing the borough among the worst 10 percent of American counties for exposure to air pollution.
But the findings also spread the blame as far away as the Midwest, citing coal-burning power plants from that region as a significant source of local pollution — even greater than the power plants concentrated along the borough’s western waterfront.
“This study confirms what we’ve known all along — the air in Queens stinks,” said City Councilman Peter Vallone Jr. (D-Astoria) at a news conference in front of Long Island City High School organized by the Natural Resources Defense Council, a national environmental advocacy organization, and the Astoria-based CHOKE, or Coalition Helping Organize a Kleaner Environment.
The report was funded by KeySpan Energy as part of an agreement that allowed the utility to construct a new 250-megawatt power plant at its existing Ravenswood site on Vernon Boulevard.
It found that Queens is among the worst 10 percent of U.S. counties in terms of exposure to air pollution.
The findings added fuel to local activists’ fight to force the state Siting Board on Electric Generation to consider the cumulative impact of pollution in an area before approving the construction of new power plants.
“Right now there is no requirement for a study of cumulative effects on a neighborhood,” Vallone said. “You can have an unlimited number of power plants in a neighborhood.”
The collective impact of pollution spewed from multiple sources is a key concern in Astoria, where the shoreline is lined with four major power plants run by Keyspan, the New York Power Authority, Reliant Energy and NRG Energy.
“We are not the dumping ground for the rest of the city,” said Tony Gigantiello, the president of CHOKE. “The Siting Board has to mandate cumulative effects.”
The study cited a litany of health problems in Queens that may be exacerbated by the high levels of air pollution. For instance, the asthma hospitalization rate for children rose 57 percent between 1988 and 1997 to seven per 1,000 total population, reaching a level three times higher than the state average.
The news conference was held as two asthma vans from Elmhurst Hospital Center and Queens Hospital waited to educate students from Long Island City High School, where a student recently died after suffering an asthma attack.
While sources within Queens like the power plants account for much of the particulate matter in the air, the largest fraction of such pollution comes from sources outside the metropolitan New York area, the report said.
“Air pollution from the Midwest, particularly from coal-burning power plants, wafts its way into New York City and Queens,” said Katherine Kennedy, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “In terms of quantities, that’s probably the largest source of fine soot and smog in Queens.”
But she added that the power plants in Queens are also a significant source of pollution.
“Because they’re in Queens, pollution comes out in higher concentrations, which is very damaging to public health in Queens,” Kennedy said.
Diesel emissions from transportation are the greatest source of hazardous air pollutants in the borough, which have the greatest impact in the area surrounding the original emissions.
“We’ve got ribbons of highways wrapped around us, and then we have the two airports,” said Borough President Helen Marshall.
A Clean Air Plan outlined in the report called for older, inefficient plants in Astoria to be retired as new plants are installed with cleaner, more efficient technology. It also recommends that the city implement aggressive energy-efficiency measures to cut down on the amount of electricity needed.
“New York state must be a leader on innovative solutions to the air quality problems in Queens,” said state Assemblyman Michael Gianaris (D-Astoria) in a news release. Gianaris, who was in session in Albany during last Thursday’s news conference, authored legislation that gives incentives to companies that modernize and clean old power plants rather than building new ones.
Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 154.