Elected officials, community advocates urge Cuomo to stop NRG’s Astoria peaker plant proposal

Costa, Astoria fracked gas plant, April 2021, #2
Former Astoria Councilman Costa Constantinides joined multiple city and state elected officials who signed a letter in opposition to NRG Energy’s proposal for the Astoria power plant. (Photo courtesy of Eric Weltman with Food & Water Watch)

More than 40 city and state elected officials, including a dozen from Queens’ delegation, have signed a letter urging Gov. Andrew Cuomo to deny NRG Energy’s proposal to build a new peaker plant in Astoria.

A small group of Astoria residents and members of the No Astoria Plant Coalition, which is made up of several community groups organizing to stop NRG’s proposal from moving ahead, gathered outside of the existing peaker plant site at 31-01 20 Ave. to announce the letter and to call on Cuomo and the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) to reject the plans on Thursday, April 8.

They were joined by State Senator Jessica Ramos and City Councilman Costa Constantinides (in one of his last acts as a councilman), both of whom signed the letter and have panned NRG’s proposal for months.

Other Queens officials who signed the letter include state Senators Michael Gianaris and Toby Ann Stavitsky; Assembly members Zohran Mamdani, Jessica González-Rojas, Brian Barnwell, Catalina Cruz, Ron Kim and Nily Rozic; as well as City Councilmen Daniel Dromm, Jimmy Van Bramer and Antonio Reynoso.

“When communities and decision-makers get together and fight, we win. There is power in numbers,” said Maria Beri, a member of New York Communities for Change. “As an Astoria resident, I’m proud we have growing numbers urging Governor Cuomo to reject this terrible polluting plant. We shouldn’t stay locked on the dirty energy of yesterday.”

Former Councilman Costa Constantinides, State Senator Jessica Ramos and members of No Astoria Plant Coalition at NRG’s Astoria Generating Station on April 8. (Photo courtesy of Eric Weltman with Food & Water Watch)

NRG, a large fossil fuel company, is seeking the state’s approval for their Astoria Replacement Project, a plan they say will replace and upgrade existing generators at their Astoria peaker plant with natural gas-fired power. Peaker plants operate when there’s a high demand in electricity by burning fossil fuels that emit harmful air pollutants into the air. 

NRG wants the plant to remain a peaking facility, but say they’ll add new technology to provide “immediate clean air benefits.”

Constantinides said that while the project’s name suggested an upgrade, they see it “for what it truly is: an attempt to jam through yet another dirty fossil fuel burning power plant.”

“The facts are clear. The project relies on an environmental review that occurred well over ten years ago,” Constantinides said. “They allege that their project will be better than the status quo, but transitioning from bad to only slightly better is not the criteria we should be using when permitting long-term energy infrastructure that will power our homes for the next 20 to 50 years.”

In the letter to Cuomo, elected officials emphasized that the project doesn’t align with the New York State Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act’s (CLCPA).

Ramos pointed to Astoria as an environmental justice community, known for its high levels of air pollution that’s led to high asthma rates among residents.

“We can no longer allow this backwards idea of burning fossil fuels and ruining our air even further, when there are so many viable options with the advent of technology,” Ramos said. “There is no reason why we need this peaker plant here. We don’t need a peaker plant in Brooklyn, we don’t need a peaker plant in Newburgh, we don’t need peaker plants anywhere on this planet. We need a firm commitment to renewable energy that is codified, that is taken seriously and that is a funded mandate.”

State Senator Jessica Ramos holds sign that reads “Cuomo: No Fracked Gas Plants!” (Photo courtesy of Eric Weltman with Food & Water Watch)

Elected officials and community advocates have expressed concerns about NRG bypassing a full public review process for their new proposal due to approval they received for a different plan in 2010.

Ramos introduced a bill that would require companies that want to build new energy projects near an environmental justice community to undergo enhanced public input. It recently passed the Senate.

But in their letter, elected officials say NRG has “fast-tracked” approvals with the state through the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA) process, which they say is “far less rigorous than what the current law requires.”

When asked for a response to the letter, a spokesperson at the DEC said NRG’s project is subject to “stringent new source review requirements” pursuant to SEQRA as part of the agency’s permitting requirements.

“Prior to any final decision on this facility, DEC is undertaking a full environmental review to ensure protection of public health and the environment,” the spokesperson stated, adding that the review will include an assessment of the project’s consistency with the CLCPA.

The DEC has not yet completed its draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) for public review and comment. If the agency makes a determination, a notice will be provided in the Environmental Notice Bulletin, including an opportunity for public comment on the permit application and draft SEIS.

In response to the letter from city and state officials, Tom Atkins, vice president of development at NRG, said that the Astoria Replacement Project is “fully consistent” with the CLCPA, will “dramatically reduce” greenhouse gas emissions statewide and can be “converted to use carbon-free green hydrogen in the future.” He added that the project will “lower electricity costs” in the city by more than $1.5 billion, improve reliability and create more than 500 new jobs.

“Nevertheless, despite clear evidence, opponents continue to demand New Yorkers make a false choice between modern back-up electricity plants like Astoria and more renewable energy. New York needs both,” Atkins said. “All credible third-party studies show highly efficient projects using lower-emitting fuels like natural gas are a critical component to reliably transition New York to a greener grid.”

Lee Ziesche, a community engagement coordinator with Sane Energy Project, said community members know the impacts of fracked gas power plants.

“Unfortunately, we’ve heard for a decade that fracked gas is a bridge fuel, well that is a climate lie and so is that this plant might one day run on hydrogen,” Ziesche said. “That is a climate lie and in 2021, that is climate denialism. And so Governor Cuomo has talked a big game about climate, and if he is serious, he must shut down this plant, all fracked gas power plants and any fracked gas infrastructure in New York.”

Last month, nine New York City Congress members also sent Cuomo a letter opposing the Astoria power plant.