Astoria lawmakers call on power plant operators to stop burning dirty oil

Photo courtesy of Flickr/Wally Gobetz

Updated Dec. 12, 2:55 p.m.

More than 50 percent of the city’s power comes from power plants located in Astoria and Long Island City, and lawmakers in those neighborhoods are asking operators to stop using the dirtiest grades of oil to power them.

Councilmen Costa Constantinides and Jimmy Van Bramer, along with state Senator Michael Gianaris, held a press conference on Friday, Dec. 9, to call for an end to using number 4 and number 6 oils, which can cause serious health effects for people living near these plants.

The Ravenswood Generating Station or Big Allis, located at 36th Avenue and Vernon Boulevard, currently burns 3,264,000 gallons of number 6 fuel oil a year. Astoria Generating Station, located at 31-01 20th Ave., burns 3,039,000 gallons of number 6 fuel oil a year.

Local Law 38, which was passed in 2015, requires power plants in the city to stop using fuel oil number 6 by 2020. Lawmakers called on operators to explain how they plan on complying with the code. Number 4 oil is required to be phased out by 2030, but the officials said they want operators to work toward fast-tracking the phaseout.

Number 4 and 6 fuel oils usually contain several contaminants such as nickel and sulfur. Operators use these oils because they are cheaper than others and using other fuel requires plants to replace oil burners and switch heating systems.

“For decades, power plants in our communities here in western Queens have strongly contributed to increased asthma rates and increases in hospitalizations and ER visits that exceed the average in Queens,” Constantinides said. “Our city has made great progress on ending the use of dirty fuel oil in buildings. Now more than ever, these plants must become better neighbors and stop the practice of burning number 6 and number 4 oil while looking to repower these older facilities.”

According to the Department of Health, Astoria and Long Island City are more polluted than the rest of the borough and the city. In these neighborhoods, the levels of PM2.5, the most harmful air pollutant, are 8.9 micrograms per cubic meter, compared with 8.4 in Queens and 8.6 citywide.

The Environment New York Research & Policy Center found in 2014 that the Ravenswood Generating Station was the largest carbon polluter in the state.

“Astoria and Long Island City have one of the highest childhood asthma rates in New York City,” Van Bramer said. “This is unacceptable. Our communities should not be known as ‘asthma alley.’ If these power plants reduce their emissions, we can make our communities stronger and more healthy.”

Approximately 60 percent of the power plants in the city are more than 40 years old and use inefficient designs, lawmakers said.

Constantinides, the chair of the Council’s Environmental Protection Committee, held a committee oversight hearing on power plants on Nov. 28 to investigate the emissions that are produced by the city’s power plants, what type of fuel is being burned, and what the operators are doing to lower emissions.

That meeting marked the first time city council has held an oversight hearing on power plants within the city. No power plant operators showed up to the meeting.

Several large public housing projects are located near these plants. The lawmakers argue that this is an environmental justice issue “as many power plants are concentrated in proximity to public housing and low-income communities or communities of color, or both,” according to a release.

“For too many years, these power plants have been in our area and we really don’t know what chemicals are escaping from them,” said Queensbridge Houses Tenants Association President April Simpson, Astoria Houses Tenants Association President Claudia Koger and Ravenswood Houses Tenants Association President Carol Wilkins. “One thing is for sure is, our residents are experiencing failing health issues, often caused by emissions from the power plants. We don’t want to wait until a news report comes out 10 years from now with even worse details about the effects of living around them.”

Jennifer Link, spokesperson for TransCanada, the company that owns the Ravenswood Generating Station, said they are on track to switch to number 4 fuel oil by 2019.

“We are currently in the process of changing the facility’s fuel oil from number 6 to number 4 to be compliant with city wide regulation; this will be complete in 2019, ahead of the requirement,” Link said.

QNS reached out to the owners of  Astoria Generating Station and is awaiting comment.