By Mark Hallum
Residents across the city, and especially Astoria, were not the only ones who got a kick out of the transformer explosion that happened at a Con Edison facility in the neighborhood Dec. 27.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo held a press conference Dec. 28 at the Astoria Generating Station — located at 31-01 20th Ave. — regarding the explosion that sparked the social media trend #AstoriaBorealis and had people across the city cracking jokes about aliens.
“There was speculation when people saw the blue light as to what it might be,” Cuomo said. “People from Queens tend to be a little suspicious, there was some rumors that it was an alien invasion.”
The explosion caused a shut down at LaGuardia Airport for about an hour, and Cuomo said back-up generators for the airline hub is something the state is going to explore to prevent service shutdowns in the future.
Providing enough backup power to allow LaGuardia to function at the same rate is main challenge to this, Cuomo said, and the main reason why there is not already significant source alternative power currently in place.
“The equipment that failed last night was a voltage detector,” ConEd CEO John McAvoy said. “That piece of equipment failed in a very significant manner and that resulted in … an electric current going into the ground which caused significant damage … the system is essentially in a normal position now, so no significant issues related to reliability and the investigation and the corrective actions to restore the equipment to service is something that will likely take another week.”
McAvoy did not expect customers to see any other disruptions in service.
Nobody was injured in the incident, but it did raise questions as to the safety of the facility such as particulate matter emitted into the air, which McAvoy said does not pose a threat.
McAvoy said although there was a normal level of danger to residents in any other incident involving smoke and fire, the explosion did not pose any real considerable threat to the surrounding community.
With 130,000 volts being produced at the facility, the Astoria Generating Station uses up 3,039,000 gallons of Number 6 petroleum fuel a year which local law makers took a stand against back in December 2016.
City Councilmen Costa Constantinides and Jimmy Van Bramer, along with state Sen. Michael Gianaris, called on ConEd in 2016 to outline how they planned to comply with Local Law 38, which passed in 2015 and calls for an end use of Number 6 oil by 2020.
Number 4 oil, also used at the Astoria Generating Station, is to be legislated out of use by 2030.
The Astoria Generating Station and the Ravenswood Generating Station or Big Allis, located at 36th Avenue and Vernon Boulevard, both use about the same amount of Number 6 fuel, among other pollutants, and has contributed to why the areas surrounding the plants have come to be known as “Asthma Alley.”
Astoria and Long Island City have two of the highest asthma rates in the city and the Astoria Generating Station is rated one of the dirtiest electrical facilities in the state by the Environment New York Research and Policy Center.
The Dec. 27 explosion could be seen across the city and parts of Long Island and New Jersey, with many residents living just a few hundred feet from the scene taking video of the event.
Astoria resident Frazier Newton lives close to the plant and said the light from the event — which lasted just a few minutes — was so bright he could not look directly at it light while he shot footage from his phone.
Another nearby resident compared seeing the explosion to looking into the arc light of a welding torch which can damage the eyesight of anyone not using the proper eye protection.
Reach reporter Mark Hallum by e-mail at mhall