Quantcast

Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

Citizens Union

Environment

Bloomberg Environmental Plan Offers Lots of Parts, Little Controversy


planyc
Spencer T. Tucker
Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced his updated sustainability plan in Harlem on Thursday.

Four years ago Mayor Michael Bloomberg stood in the cavernous ocean life room at the Museum of Natural History to set forth a sweeping plan to make New York City sustainable by the year 2030.

Yesterday he went to a less overwhelming venue -- the gatehouse that houses the Harlem Stage on Convent Avenue -- to laud his achievements and set forth a new round of less sweeping ideas to clean up the city and make it run more efficiently. The 132 proposals -- some new, some not, many fairly vague -- encompass a range of environmental concerns from air quality to brownfields to a green infrastructure to reduce the burden on the sewer system.

While the mayor's 2007 blueprint included dozens of measures, attention quickly focused on one: his effort to charge people to drive into Manhattan during the business week. (For a review of the 2007 plan's successes and failues, go here.) In his speech yesterday, Bloomberg largely eschewed such controversy, focusing on proposals to phase out use of highly polluting heating oil, place solar collectors on unused landfill space and help property owners finance energy efficiency projects.

Notably, in his speech Bloomberg did not mention possible construction of plants that would produce energy from garbage. The written plan released yesterday does call for pilot waste to energy projects but does not set out many specifics.

The 198-page plan touches on some other controversial items. It calls for pricing mechanisms to discourage auto use, for example, comes out strongly against hydraulic fracturing to extract natural gas in the city's watershed and seeks "continued expansion of the bike network."

Having a proposal in a plan does not, of course, guarantee it will come to fruition. But environmentalists, many of whom attended the speech, expressed almost unanimous praise for the mayor's latest proposal.

"This is great," said City Councilmember James Gennaro, chair of the environment committee, who hailed the opportunity "to all get together and get reenergized and committed to all this great work."

"We really have a mayor who has set the bar on sustainability. We're pleased he is continuing to raise that bar and that it’s part of his political agenda," said Marcia Bystryn, executive director of the of the New York League of Conservation Voters.

Cleaner Energy, Cleaner Air

Two of Bloomberg's key proposals, which took up much of his speech, involve making the city's buildings cleaner and more energy efficient. Unlike other cities in the country, Bloomberg said 80 percent of greenhouse gases and other air pollution here comes from heating, cooling and powering buildings -- not from cars and trucks.

To chop away at that, Bloomberg called for phasing out use of highly polluting Grade 6 heating oil by 2015 and of grade 4 by 2030. The city itself will stop using the Grade 6 oil at some 200 public schools.

Together, Bloomberg said, the few thousand buildings that burn this oil "produce more pollution than all the cars and trucks in New York City combined." Doing away with it, then, he said, will do more to reduce pollution than congestion pricing would have done and could save 1,500 lives a year.

A number of environmental groups have been urging similar moves.

"The importance of that cannot be overestimated," said Gennaro, whose proposed legislation passed by City Council to clean up heating oil.

Bloomberg also said he would create the New York City Energy Efficiency Corp., funded with some $37 million in federal money, to provide financing and information to property owners to encourage them to undertake energy efficiency and other environmental improvements.

The plan calls for the city to take steps toward producing energy as well as using it by devoting space to solar collectors at the onetime landfills at Fresh Kills and Fountain Avenue.

Taking Out the Garbage

Unlike the first plan this iteration of PlaNYC does discuss solid waste, but the mayor did not mention the topic in his speech.

The written plan does, as Gotham Gazette reported last month, call for pilot projects to test the feasibility of waste to energy plants in New York City. David Bragdon, head of Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability, said there was not yet any timetable for doing this. Companies submitting proposals for pilot projects, Bragdon said, would have to include the technologies to be used as well as the thorny issue of siting any such plants.

"Any individual proposal would need to be evaluated in terms of health impacts, environmental impacts," he said. Overall, he said, "the overarching goal is to reduce the amount we're sending to landfills."

While she was pleased to see solid waste included in the plan, Bystryn said her group will want to see follow-up implementing fuel producing measure. The league, she said, supports waste to energy as a mean to reduce the costs and environmental impact of sending garbage to faraway landfills. "We will be urging [the administration] to get more explicit," she said.

Eddie Bautista, executive director of the NYC Environmental Justice Alliance, though, sees problems with having the plants included in the plan at all.

"It’s like a symphony when you've got really good music and then there's this sour note or flat note and everyone cringes," he said.

In particular Bautista cited concerns about pollution from the plants, disposing of residual materials and siting of the facilities in communities that already have been burdened with waste disposal and other polluting facilities.

Given his general support for the PlaNYC -- what’s not to love," he said, "most of it is mom and apple pie" -- Bautista said he hopes the waste to energy plan will be a non-starter. "They say they're going to look at it. That doesn’t mean they’re going to do it," he said.

Elizabeth Yeampierre, executive director of UPROSE, a community group in Sunset Park, agreed. "I hope the fact that [Bloomberg] didn’t talk about it means it’s not a priority," she said.

In addition to waste to energy, the plan calls for increasing recycling. Bragdon said the city would look make recycling more accessible for households and would also seek to boost commercial recycling rates, particularly for organic waste and paper.

Interestingly the speech came on the same day the mayor and the City Council reached a tentative agreement to restore funding for four marine transfer stations called for in the city's Solid Waste Management Plan. These were key to the effort, supported by environmentalists and community advocates, to switch from transporting garbage by truck through city streets to placing it on barges.

Postponing the stations "would have been really, really harmful," said Yeampierre. She praised the mayor's solid waste program as "a huge departure form other administrations and a huge step toward equity."

Yeampierre said she hopes that principal of fairness could be extended to other environmental issues. "I would like to see this attention to communities that have suffered the brunt of the burden be a priority," she said.

Paying the Bill

By all accounts the recession and accompanying budget woes delayed if not derailed parts of the 2007 plan. Reviewing the proposal, particularly with respect to parks, Alyson Beha, director of research, planning and programs for New Yorkers for Parks said, "It's something of a relief to see as many new initiatives as there are given the fiscal climate."

The plan, though, does not spell out how the parks department will maintain all this new parkland.

In the transportation section, the plan calls for seeking "funding to maintain and improve our mass transit network."

In his speech, Bloomberg harked back to what many view as the key defeat from the 2007 plan -- the failure to passcongestion pricing. Despite that defeat, Bloomberg credited the proposal with raising "critical issues about reducing traffic and reducing mass transit." So this year's plan calls for "pilot technology and pricing based mechanisms" to address those issues -- without being specific about what those mechanisms might be.

Backward and Forward

For the mayor coming off a rough few months, the speech offered an opportunity to bask in some praise and to laud his work. The glossy 198-page book, the slide presentation, a panel discussion and free water bottles filled with eau de tap all gave the presentation on the day before Earth Day the trapping of a corporate public relations event.

In his speech, Bloomberg patted himself -- and others -- on the back. Ninety-seven percent of the initiatives in the first PlanNYC were launched in the first year, Bloomberg said, rattling off accomplishments: a greener taxi fleet, a half million trees planted, faster buses, increased life expectancy. ("If you want to live longer, move to New York," Bloomberg said.) He lauded New York for being at the forefront of urban environmental issues, and others lauded him for making that happen.

Now, he said, "we plan to step up the pace."

But the mayor's time is running out. In all likelihood he will leave office at the end of 2013 -- 17 years before 2030.

What will happen to the plan then remains anyone's guess. Long-term planning poses a challenge in a place where officials serve for the short term.

Referring specifically to parks -- though it could apply to other parts of the plan as well -- Beha said, "All of these initiative are being funded with mayor's discretionary funds. Those that don't get funded in the next two years, there is no guarantee that they're going to get funded."

Fracking Fight Sparks Intense Lobbying


fracking
Natural gas drilling is already taking place in Pennsylvania near the New York border.

In 2008, companies with a stake in natural gas drilling in New York spent a little less than $400,000 on lobbying. In 2009, that number tripled, with groups like the Independent Oil and Gas Association and Chesapeake Energy spending over $1,200,000. Lobbying dollars from the same sources only increased in 2010, hitting nearly $1,600,000.

What sparked that rise? Although most groups and companies spending that kind of money on lobbying have a myriad of issues before the state legislature, this spending spiked as the debate about the safety of hydraulic fracturing grew increasingly heated.

Hydraulic fracturing is the process by which natural gas is released from shale formations by injecting millions of gallons of water and chemicals into the earth. The natural gas industry says the process, along with the chemicals used, is safe, but there is concern that waste water from the process could contaminate local drinking supplies. The Environmental Protection Agency has discovered numerous pollutants in well water near fracking sites.

Common Cause, the good government group that conducted a recent study about the amount of lobbying dollars spent in the fight for and against what's known as hydrofracking, says that their study shows that those with more money are more likely to get heard.

"This is about big money and the influence it has on the debate. Those with the most money get heard," said Donna Bitetti of Common Cause. She says she is concerned about a recent deluge of television and radio advertising supporting hydrofracking, something groups like hers that oppose it or want to give environmental agencies more time to study the process simply cannot afford.

Looking for the Go-Ahead

Why have pro-fracking groups increased their spending? According to state Sen. Liz Krueger, an opponent of hydraulic fracturing who has introduced legislation that would steeply increase regulation of the process, the natural gas groups want the state legislature to quickly approve permits to allow fracking before scientific studies determine whether the process is safe or not.

Last year the legislature passed a moratorium on hydrofracking, a measure that was eventually vetoed by Gov. David Paterson. But Paterson then issued his own moratorium as an executive order to give the state Department of Environmental Conservation more time to study the process and the impact it may have on the environment. Meanwhile, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is doing its own study of the process. New York's moratorium expires on July 3. The state environment department is expected to unveil its study and new rules for hydraulic fracturing around then, and the public will have time to review and comment on the study before it becomes official.

It would be up to the DEC to allow permitting of hydrofracking in New York. The EPA conducted a study of hydrofracking in 2004 that found the process to be safe. Congress then passed legislation allowing states to regulate fracking individually. If the new EPA study finds fracking unsafe things could change.

But not all hydraulic fracturing that could affect New York's water supply is under exclusive control of New Yorkers.

In December 2010 the Delaware River Basin Commission, an interstate federal body led by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Parks Service and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, proposed regulations to oversee hydrofracking. It estimates that 15,000 to 18,000 wells could be dug in the Delaware River Basin, most of them for the purpose of hydrofracking. Its unclear how many of those wells could be in New York but the fear is that 50 percent of New York City's drinking water comes from the basin, and a well in another state could affect the city's water supply.

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who has steadfastly opposed hydrofracking, issued an ultimatum earlier this week. Either the federal government does a full review of the environmental impact of the commission's guidelines within 30 days or Schneiderman will sue.

"Both the law and common sense dictate that the federal government must fully assess the impact of its actions before opening the door to gas fracking in New York," said Schneiderman in a statement.

The Independent Oil and Natural Gas Association responded with this statement: "It appears to us that the commission is indeed working to do what it always has: to prevent water pollution in the Delaware River Basin. There is no reason to believe that the DRBC might somehow do other than what it always has done -- protect water quality and water supply and conserve the resources of the basin for the public’s recreation and enjoyment. ... The attorney general's statements today appear to run counter to New York's duty as a member of the DRBC."

Billion Dollar Battle

The stakes are enormous. Some fracking advocates estimate that New York could see $3.8 billion in revenues from hydrofracking in the Marcellus Shale and, using Pennsylvania as an example, $400 million in tax revenues. Meanwhile they say local landowners and localities would benefit from an infusion of cash from n the purchase or leasing of land and from the new industry the wells would bring in.

Fracking supporters say this money would be a boon to upstate's ailing economy and could also help shift some energy use from coal and foreign oil to domestic natural gas which produces less of the gases that cause global warming.

Opponents, though, point to what they see as a myriad of risks. They express particular concern that fracking could endanger New York City's water supply, requiring the construction of filtering systems that could cost billions and might not even be able to remove dangerous substances from the city's water.

Faced with such criticism, Kruger said, the industry seems to recognize it is "losing the high ground in the debate. They are spending money on lobbying and putting pressure on New York to try to approve this before the government says this is not a good idea. They are trying to get ahead of the science."

Krueger points to a recent New York Times series that focused on the dangers of fracking and spotlighted the damage it has done in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. The series unearthed federal government studies, allegedly buried by the Bush administration, that showed that fracking leads to pollution of well water. On top of that a recent study by Cornell University found that unearthing natural gas creates pollution as damaging to the environment as what's produced extracting coal.

James Smith, spokesman for gas association, denies that there is any rush. "The DEC has said they are not going to wait for the EPA. On July 1 we expect to have a new impact statement, and it will be open for comment a period. We hope it's short and everyone likes it. And then we hope they will start issuing permits," he said.

Smith also disagrees with Krueger that there has been a shift in the debate against fracking. "I think the debate has been pretty steady. There have been protests and rallies on both sides, op eds on both both sides."

The Court of Public Opinion

Smith says the industry may face a problem of perception. "It seems that the public has associated the word hydrofracking with pollution, and I think it got a bad rap," Smith said. "We still don't have any cases of ground water pollution due to hydrofracking -- that is not saying their haven't been issues elsewhere -- we just expect the regulations to be so tough in New York that it would minimize those type of events."

Krueger, however, says she thinks the message about the possible dangers of fracking is getting out despite the lobbying dollars spent to promote its alleged safety.

"Hydrofracking is the number one environmental issue. Not many people in New York live in western New York where the wells would be, but they have seen the pictures of Pennsylvania and watched the film Gasland. The New York Times has done a six-part series. So if you go up to someone in my district and say 'So, hydrofracking, huh?' they are very likely to say, 'Oh that is the thing that destroyed Pennsylvania and could pollute our water supply.'"

Bitetti of Common Cause isn't as confident. She has seen the lobbying dollars spent by the natural gas industry. She knows how much her group has spent in comparison to try to convince the public about what she believes are the dangers of fracking. And she has seen how the legislature has dealt with the issue.

She notes that the natural gas industry has been pouring money into PR and lobbying since way before the New York Times ran its series. Ads supporting fracking are commonplace on upstate television stations, and public radio. Thousands of fracking supporters -- residents of the areas that would stand to economically benefit -- have come to Albany en masse to lobby the legislature to allow them to use their land to make money.

Bitetti says she is encouraged that there are legislators like Krueger, "who introduced legislation that would basically ban fracking, but as soon as the legislation was introduced it was killed."

Krueger says she thinks the "grassroots" movement against fracking has taken off. She admits there isn't as much cash behind the push but she points to the anti-fracking lawn signs that cover some upstate neighborhoods, huge anti-fracking rallies in Albany and around the state, and the fact that fracking has become a hot environmental issue.

Tracking the Money

Common Cause and Bitetti now want to determine how much the natural gas industry has donated directly to politicians. That study, however, is difficult, as state campaign financing laws are not as strict as New York City's; individual donors don't have to name their employers. Along with that, it is hard to say that donations from the natural gas industry are aimed at promoting fracking, since the companies have other issues in front of the legislature, too.

Still, it is possible to get a basic idea of the kind of money that is pouring into politicians’ campaign chests. Gov. Andrew Cuomo received around $75,000 in donations from Competitive Power Ventures and its various subsidiaries. The company backs the use of natural gas and wind power -- two energies Cuomo supported in his energy position paper. Competitive Power Ventures has proposed building a natural gas plant in Wawayanda. N.Y.

Cuomo has received a number of smaller donations from companies interested in natural gas. He has raised the ire of advocates opposed to fracking by associating with members of the business community who have lobbied for fracking. He ationappointed one, Ken Addams, to be the CEO of the Empire State Development Corp. There is no clear connection between the coporation and the permitting of fracking, but anti-fracking advocates have taken it as a sign of who has Cuomo's ear. Adams as head of the Buisness Council strongly advocated to allow fracking.

The opponents just aren't sure where the most important decision makers stand.

Bitetti said she was encouraged when the new DEC commissioner said the new environmental impact statement would be released in the Summer and would allow for public comment. But her enthusiasm was tempered when nearly at the same time, "Norse Energy Corp. issued a random press release touting that they had had a great meeting with him just before he made the announcement."

Despite Key Setbacks, Bloomberg Plan Has Made New York Greener


Clinton and Bloomberg
Photo by Edward Ree
At a joint announcement on climate change last week, former President Bill Clinton and Mayor Michael Bloomberg both boasted of how green they had become.

In an elaborately decorated parlor in Gracie Mansion, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former President Bill Clinton last week each ticked off how he had personally become green.

Clinton bought a hybrid.

Bloomberg painted the roof of his Upper East Side townhouse white.

They both pushed for sustainable building.

"I'm devoting more time to the environment," said Bloomberg.

Bloomberg plans to encourage all New Yorkers to adopt those personal practices. And he's doing it through his environmental agenda: PlaNYC 2030. In December 2006, PlaNYC set out more than 120 initiatives, programs and goals to reduce carbon emissions by more than 30 percent over the next two decades and prepare the city for a population influx of 1 million people. It proposed regional parks, bike lanes, stormwater infrastructure, affordable housing and a green building code. According to Bloomberg's estimate, the city has already kicked off 97 percent of these initiatives.

"The vast bulk of these things we actually are doing, and they are making a difference," said Bloomberg.

Many advocates say the vast majority of the plan has been successful, but not all of it.

Since the plan's launch, the administration has been hit with several major defeats (most notably, congestion pricing), while some adopted proposals (ahem, bike lanes) currently face renewed opposition.

This week, Bloomberg is expected to release a retooled plan, announce new initiatives and incorporate the city's solid waste management strategy into his sustainability agenda. As the city plans for PlaNYC 2.0, officials and advocates question whether Bloomberg can accomplish all of the goals of the original plan in the face of a staggering economy and third termitis.

The Disappointments

First came congestion pricing -- the mayor's plan to charge drivers to enter Manhattan during the workweek.

The linchpin of the entire environmental agenda, the pricing plan failed to gain traction in Albany thanks to fierce opposition from legislators in the outer boroughs.

That defeat was followed by a series of court decisions striking down another PlaNYC proposal: the creation of an all hybrid-taxi fleet.

Then came the Great Recession and 10 rounds of budget cuts. Now, thanks to the economy, some programs have been abandoned altogether.

"We had our wins and our losses," said Rohit Aggarwala, the former head of the mayor's Office of Long-term Planning and Sustainability, who left the Bloomberg administration last year. "The biggest achievement that I'm most proud of is the green buildings package," Aggarwala said referring to legislation to reduce carbon emissions from buildings.

hybrid taxi
The administration has been thwarted in its efforts to convert to hybrid taxi cabs.

But, he added, "Congestion pricing was obviously a tragic loss. The hybrid taxis is kind of a mixed bag."

Some would call "mixed" generous.

The administration is set to select a new taxi model this month -- none of the cars under consideration are hybrids.

Beyond taxis, the city planned to open 43 sports fields across the city to their communities. That proposal has been abandoned, according to the latest PlaNYC status report.

By 2015, according to PlaNYC, the city would redevelop at least one underutilized major park in every borough. Construction was supposed to start on all eight by the end of 2010. Half -- Fort Washington Park, Highland Park, High Bridge and Soundview Park -- have yet to see a shovel in the ground.

The plan promised every New Yorker would live within walking distance of a park. Some advocates question whether that will ever happen.

"We thought we were going to get a waterfront park with an environmental education center and children's playground," said Elizabeth Yeampierre, the executive director of UPROSE, an environmental group in Sunset Park. "We thought we were going to get a greenway."

They have none of that, she said.

The city was supposed to complete 640 greenstreets, or thoroughfares with small islands with green space, by 2015. That number has been halved, according to a PlaNYC progress report. The administration originally committed to installing nighttime lights on 25 fields. That has been decreased to 19.

The plan called for encouraging home ownership and affordable housing. But the administration's preliminary budget has eliminated city funding for the Center for New York City Neighborhoods, which provides counseling for those at risk of foreclosure.

For its part, administration officials are quick to deflect blame and point fingers -- sometimes at Wall Street and the economy, other times at Washington or Albany.

"For those things that are within the city government's unilateral control, the transportation initiatives have been successful," said David Bragdon, the new head of the city's sustainability office. "Where the transportation objectives haven't been met, it's largely a function of state and or federal inaction."

Bragdon, who took over the mayor's sustainability office last year, said the administration is committed to seeing the plan through. Park construction is not eliminated, only delayed. As part of the city's budget cutting measures, the administration is stretching out projects over several more years.

In light of billion-dollar deficits, some advocates sympathized with Bloomberg, who has to weigh spending city funds on the creation of open space with keeping cops on the street.

"They've accomplished a lot already, and while it's frustrating that the progress has had to slow, it's still underway," said Alyson Beha, director of research, planning and programs at New Yorkers for Parks. "They are doing a fantastic job given the financial climate."

The Successes

Despite the setbacks, Bloomberg administration officials easily list the plan's accomplishments.

Just last week, the mayor lauded the 2-year old pedestrian plaza in Times Square for bringing down nitrogen dioxide and nitrogen oxide levels in the area (PlaNYC called for 10 to 15 public plazas across the city).

Times Square
Photo by Sean Marshall
Many view changes to the city's streetscape, such as the Times Square pedestrian mall, as key successes of the Bloomberg environmental plan.

While major park construction has been delayed, the administration has been successful at opening school playgrounds to the public. As of April, 177 have been opened and 34 are currently under construction, according to a Bloomberg spokesperson.

Last month, Bloomberg and Council Speaker Christine Quinn announced the launch of East River ferry service between Brooklyn, Manhattan and Queens -- after much delay -- and committed $3.3. billion to the city's waterfronts.

Back on land, the administration has successfully launched the nation's first ever Office of Environmental Remediation -- the only city run brownfield cleanup program. The office aims to attract developers by providing start-up capital to clean up contaminated land, which does not qualify for state or federal programs. So far, said Daniel Walsh, the head of the office, eight developers have signed on and the city has approved $800,000 in grants.

"For us, it's a very good story," Walsh told the Gotham Gazette. "The economy has not stopped us from building programs and getting them in place."

Despite earlier criticism, most advocates champion new laws approved in 2009 to require buildings get energy audits. In an original version, the proposal would have forced building owners to complete the audit's recommendations. In a compromise with the real estate industry, that provision was scratched.

Nonetheless, advocates say the legislation would still be extremely effective at reducing pollution from buildings -- which are responsible for 80 percent of all the city's carbon emissions.

"From our members' perspective, brownfields, the green infrastructure, stormwater management plan, the greater greener buildings plans ... every one of those have had a disproportionately positive effect for environmental justice communities," said Eddie Bautista, a former member of the Bloomberg administration who now heads the Environmental Justice Alliance. "Had PlaNYC not prioritized these type of programs cumulatively, we would be talking about dirtier air, more un-remediated soil, more CO2 discharges."

But Bautista added: "The jury is out on moving forward in a budget challenged, in a deficit era."

Moving to 2.0

The next version of PlaNYC, which will be unveiled Thursday, is already getting mixed reviews.

"While on its face it looks like this great effort to address climate, it doesn't really address the environmental health needs of communities that really deserve it," said Yeampierre of UPROSE, who says projects in Manhattan are higher priorities than those in outer borough, poorer neighborhoods. "The more we learn about what's being proposed, the more we're concerned."

Some of the criticism from advocates like Yeampierre stems from the administration's renewed exploration of waste-to-energy -- otherwise known as the process of burning trash to create electricity. Solid waste management will be included in the plan for the first time, and some advocates fear communities already inundated with the city's garbage burden will face the prospect of new facilities.

Other environmentalists, like those at the New York League of Conservation Voters, are encouraging the administration to consider waste-to-energy facilities. Too much of the city's trash is taken to out of state landfills, said Marcia Bystryn, the group's executive director, at an extremely high financial and environmental cost.

Stakeholders do not anticipate a sea change this week considering the city's budget crunch. Advocates say it's a good sign the administration is willing to revisit the plan and consider new technologies that have emerged over the last five years. But they are far from claiming victory.

"The hard part of conveying this story is you can acknowledge the progress that has been made and still worry about the serious challenges yet to be addressed," said Eric Goldstein of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "Celebrating now would be premature."

Council Approves Bills to Regulate Snow Removal


In response to the storm of criticism on the Bloomberg administration's response to last year's Boxing Day blizzard, the City Council approved a package of legislation Wednesday that outlines how the city should act in future snow emergencies.

The legislation caps off a round of public hearings hosted by the council, one in every borough, where New Yorkers shoveled out complaints over how slow the city was to plow streets and provide emergency services after the snowfall.

Council Speaker Christine Quinn said the package, which was approved almost entirely unanimously, would ensure the city was prepared to deal with another weather disaster.

"New Yorkers deserve and should expect a prepared city government," Quinn said. "We can't assume these things are going to happen."

When the legislation was first introduced, the Bloomberg administration criticized the proposals, arguing it needed its emergency regulations to be flexible. On Wednesday, however, a Bloomberg spokesperson said the mayor would support the measures.

The administration said it had worked with the council on the package, and attributed its reversal to revisions made to the proposal. For example, the council abandoned a requirement to force the city to suspend parking meters during snow emergencies.

Blizzard Backlash

The December blizzard dumped 20 inches of snow on the five boroughs and left streets unplowed, particularly in the outer boroughs, for more than three days. The city's 911 call system was overwhelmed and ambulances were blocked from responding to emergencies.

Quinn called the city's response "unacceptable."

Since the snowfall, the mayor's approval rating has plummeted to an eight year low. Most New Yorkers, according to a recent Marist College poll, believe the city is heading in the wrong direction. The city's slow snow response is credited with much of the Bloomberg bad sentiment.

Council officials said its legislative package would prevent similar incidents.

Under the package, the city's Office of Emergency Management would have to release an annual report evaluating the city's snow response. The office will also have to create formal protocols for weather emergencies that would outline when it should perform what duties and what would prompt a request for state aid.

Another bill will require the Department of Sanitation to create borough-based snow removal plans. As part of that proposal, the city will have to identify which streets get plowed when.

"People living on these streets will have a say," said Councilmember Jimmy Vacca, the chair of the Transportation Committee. "We're shedding light where there was none."

The city will be required to create a registry of snow removal volunteers and post what services are suspended online. The package also mandates the establishment of high-volume protocol for the city's 311 system, which would include the creation of a system to track complaints. Councilmember Gale Brewer abstained on both of these bills, arguing the policies didn't require legislation.

Every other bill was approved unanimously.

The council also called on the state to simplify the process for the city to use volunteer and private ambulances during emergencies.

In addition to the legislation, the Bloomberg administration and the council announced an agreement to force the company's snow removal contractor at bus shelters, Cemusa, to report to the Department of Transportation on its progress during storms. Originally, the council had proposed rescinding Cemusa's contract and requiring the Department of Transportation to remove the snow.

At least one councilmember argued the council was being too light on the administration.

"The mayor and the commissioner got away," said Councilmember Charles Barron.

Soaking up the Sun

In addition to the blizzard bills, the council also approved legislation that would exempt solar panels from height restrictions. It also approved legislation that would allow builders to use roofing materials that absorb less heat in the summer and reflect less in the winter.

The legislation, said council officials, would help reverse the city's heat island effect.

Taxi of Tomorrow Could Reduce Fleet Fuel Efficiency


Photo (cc) Karsan

Despite a call to bring the city's cab industry into the future, yellow taxis aren't going as green as some would hope.

Within a month, the city will select a new model for its 13,000-strong iconic taxi fleet -- the last step of a more than yearlong competition titled Taxi of Tomorrow. No matter which of the three remaining vehicles the city chooses, the selection might make the city's cab convoy less fuel efficient than it is on average now.

Currently, the city's taxi fleet is one-third hybrid and two-thirds, gas-guzzling Crown Victorias courtesy of the Ford Motor Co. The majority of the city's hybrid fleet are Ford Escapes, which average 34 miles per gallon during city driving. In total, including hybrid vehicles, the city's fleet has an average of 22 miles per gallon.

Under the competition, the city will choose one vehicle and phase out the rest of the fleet -- including hybrids. The contract would span 10 years, and officials estimate it will be worth $1 billion.

At least one of the vehicles under consideration by the Taxi and Limousine Commission, the Ford Transit Connect, gets only 21 miles per gallon during city driving. The commission would not reveal the gas mileage for the other two vehicles under consideration nor would their respective companies: the Nissan NV200 and the Turkey-based Karsan. A diesel version of the Nissan is used in Europe, but the Karsan is still in development. None of the options are manufactured in the United States.

A spokesperson at the U.S. National Renewable Energy Lab, said the agency did not keep records of foreign vehicles' fuel economies.

"If they go forward with one of these three finalists, it’s a step backward at least in the short term for fuel efficiency and tailpipe emissions," said Mark Izeman, director of the New York urban program at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The competition culminates a protracted battle between the Bloomberg administration and the taxi industry. Ultimately, environmental advocates say, the administration is on the losing side.

Making Taxis Cleaner?

For its part, the city blames Washington.

In February, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear a case that struck down city-based incentives to encourage the taxi industry to purchase greener and cleaner vehicles. Under the now-defunct regulation, the city would financially penalize taxi owners if they failed to purchase hybrid vehicles.

The policy attempted to make good on Mayor Michael Bloomberg's commitment to create a cab fleet with a fuel efficiency greater than 25 miles per gallon. The proposal was a major tenant of Bloomberg's environmental agenda -- otherwise known as PlaNYC 2030.

The courts said the incentives amounted to a mandate and argued only Congress has the power to regulate fuel efficiency.

"Obviously we wanted to build fuel efficiency into the Taxi of Tomorrow, and would have done so if we were not limited by the interpretation of the statue," said Allan Fromberg, a spokesperson for the Taxi and Limousine Commission.

Despite the setback in court, city and federal officials are still attempting to regulate fuel efficiency in the Big Apple.

On Monday, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Bloomberg and Rep. Jerrold Nadler said they would introduce legislation in Washington to allow cities to regulate their own taxi industry's fuel efficiency. The same legislation was introduced in 2009, but failed to gain traction. Cities like Washington, DC, Las Vegas, Boston, San Francisco and Los Angeles have signed on in support of the measure.

While championing the mayor's commitment to fuel efficiency standards, some environmental advocates question whether there is the political willpower to actually get it done on Capitol Hill.

And even if the legislation were to move forward this session, it's unclear whether a potential Taxi of Tomorrow contract, which is locked in for 10 years, could be modified to meet higher fuel efficiency standards.

Taxi for the 21st Century

Some of the models under consideration -- all of which resemble a more modern minivan -- hope to eventually phase in cleaner cab versions, according to the Taxi and Limousine Commission.

Fromberg said Nissan hopes to make their model eventually entirely electric. Before that could occur, the city would have to establish infrastructure for taxis to go to charging stations instead of the pump.

According to its promotional site, Karsan can be "quickly and cost-effectively modified to conform to the city’s preference for electric, compressed gas, hybrid or other advanced power system."

But those who have battled the Bloomberg administration's taxi policy -- including The Metropolitan Taxicab Board of Trade, who represents taxi company owners -- say fuel efficiency should take a back seat to other more important amenities.

"As operators we have to have safety and durability and affordability," said Michael Woloz, a spokesperson for the board. "That’s our main concern."

Earlier this week, the taxicab board filed another motion in federal court to compel the city to allow companies to purchase the Ford Transit Connect now. Woloz said selecting one cab model would crush competitive prices, because one manufacturer would have exclusive rights to the New York City taxi market. Woloz said he wouldn't be surprised if the city backed out of the competition altogether.

"The Taxi of Tomorrow is far from a sure thing," he said.

Administration Considers Waste-to-Energy


Photo (cc) Kai Schreiber
This waste-to-energy plant in Newark was built almost 20 years ago and continues to burn garbage, including some of New York City's refuse.

The Bloomberg administration is once again talking trash.

Five years after the City Council approved a new solid waste management plan and a decade after the closure of the Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island, the Bloomberg administration is seriously considering the development of waste-to-energy facilities in the five boroughs, officials said Tuesday. Waste-to-energy -- commonly thought of as the process of heating or burning trash and converting it to energy -- was mulled over earlier in Bloomberg's tenure. Mayor Ed Koch also considered the technology, but community opposition killed his proposal.

Now waste-to-energy is back on the administration's radar, and the Department of Sanitation will release a "request for information" to gauge interest from industry experts in the oft-controversial technology.

Officials see waste-to-energy as a potential solution to the skyrocketing cost of exporting city trash to out-of-state landfills -- a price tag that has risen by 62 percent per ton over the last decade. Already a majority of refuse in Manhattan is trucked to an incinerator in Newark and burned.

"The monetary costs of long distance transportation and disposal are quite high," said David Bragdon, the city's director of long term planning and sustainability. "When you look at the landfill and transportation market, the city is spending more and more money every year. I think we will, as we did in the earlier plan, call for an examination of waste-to-energy conversions."

The toughest challenge for the city will be siting such facilities. The equal distribution of infrastructure throughout the five boroughs has been a sensitive issue from Williamsburg to Hunts Point. Already, advocates say, developers have targeted neighborhoods, like Sunset Park, to hone in on potential sites for waste-to-energy facilities.

"I feel a little troubled by the fact that whenever these proposals are made our communities are targeted," said Elizabeth Yeampierre, the executive director of the United Puerto Rican Association of Sunset Park.

Bragdon, however, said no particular site is under consideration.

"Where [these facilities] might occur is a wide open question," Bragdon told Gotham Gazette.

The preliminary discussion has split the city's environmental community. Some fear facilities could land in neighborhoods already overburdened with waste transfer stations. The rest applaud the move. To ensure the city has a sustainable sanitation plan for the future, supporters argue it must deal with some of its solid waste within the five boroughs.

Trucking Trash

Reaching its height in popularity during the 1970s and a staple in many European cities, waste-to-energy in its most basic form involves an incinerator burning trash and using turbines to create usable electricity. In recent years, the definition has expanded to other renewable technologies, like anaerobic digestion, which takes methane out of decomposing refuse, or thermal technologies, which heats refuse at extremely high temperatures to create energy.

The move to develop such facilities here would be a drastic change from how the city deals with refuse now.

In the 10 years since the closure of the Fresh Kills, the city has spent the majority of its time trucking trash on diesel-spewing trucks to out-of-state landfills in Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Virginia.

In 2006, the City Council approved a new solid waste management plan that moved trash onto barges and railroads -- an attempt to reduce carbon emissions. The city also approved several new waste transfer stations, including two in Manhattan, to distribute the trash burden throughout the five boroughs.

The Bloomberg administration's environmental agenda, otherwise known as PlaNYC 2030, was released later that same year. It said relatively little on solid waste management. Officials say taking on trash is politically sensitive and can quickly become mired in community opposition.

On Earth Day in 2010, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced the city would once again tackle solid waste management and incorporate it into his environmental agenda. The announcement, advocates said, offered an opportunity to revisit the city's reliance on out-of-state landfills.

"It's time the city take a look from a cost perspective and from an environmental perspective at solid waste disposal," said Marcia Bystryn, the executive director of the New York League of Conservation Voters.

The mayor plans to release a retooled PlaNYC 2030 on Earth Day next month. Advocates and officials said it would deal with solid waste management.

Waste to Energy

Should the administration move forward with waste-to-energy facilities, it's unclear what technology it will select.

"A lot of people when they hear waste-to-energy, what they assume is incinerator. That is a misconception," said Rohit Aggarwala, the former head of the city's sustainability agenda who now serves as a special advisor to the C40 climate leadership group. The group is chaired by Bloomberg. "I'm almost certain that there are waste to energy technologies that would make sense in New York," he said.

Environmental advocates have expressed interest in anaerobic digestion. The city already extracts methane from Fresh Kills. A study conducted for the New York City Economic Development Corp. last summer found a digestion facility in Hunts Point, one of the largest food markets in the country, could be a rich resource for the city -- if it wanted to make the investment.

Experts at Columbia University's Earth Institute say traditional waste-to-energy plants, which incinerate trash, have gotten cleaner. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency established guidelines to restrict emissions from these plants in the 1980s. There are 87 waste-to-energy plants in the country, several of which are on Long Island, said Nickolas Themelis, a professor at Columbia.

Opponents, however, question whether these types of facilities jibe with the administration's overall goal: to make the city more sustainable. Some say the administration should focus on increasing the city's dismal recycling rate instead.

"What is the incentive for the Department of Sanitation?" asked Eddie Bautista, executive director of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance. "What's the incentive to recycle and reduce waste [when] if we feed the beast, we'll actually get energy out of it?"

After Cuts and Firing, Can Agency Still Protect New York's Environment?


endangered
Photo by Astoria4u
The clean up of Newtown Creek (above) would be in jeopardy if New York withdrew from the federal Superfund program.

"Pete Grannis was fired by Gov. Paterson because he had unpleasant news about what his planned cuts would mean to the state," said River Keeper executive director Paul Gallay.

Many activists and others agree. When Gov. David Paterson fired Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Pete Grannis in late October, after a memo leaked detailing how cuts would prevent the agency from protecting the environment, legislators and environmental activists joined together to denounce the move and praise Grannis' long service. Grannis denied leaking the memo.

"They shot the messenger," said Gallay.

While controversy over the firing still rages, advocates say the focus must now shift to the agency itself and if it can protect New Yorkers and the environment with cut after cut. "We need to move on and focus now on the memo and what it says about this agency's ability to function," said Laura Haight, senior environmental associate for the New York Public Interest Research Group.

Cuts and More Cuts

According to the memo, the Department of Environmental Conservation may no longer be able to carry out the most basic of its functions.

The DEC had about 3,775 workers to start 2008; since then 260 staffers left under an early retirement program. and 150 more could soon be handed pink slips. Staffers from scientists in wildlife labs to office workers and site inspectors have left their jobs leaving the agency understaffed.

According to the unsigned memo, the DEC will not be able to properly staff cleanup sites, monitor natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale, make sure polluters keep up with state standards and manage wildlife at parks. Environmentalists say the crippling of the agency hurts business too.

"There will be huge delays in licensing. They (the DEC) aren't staffed to do permitting anymore," said Marcia Bystryn, executive director of the League of Conservation Voters. "Businesses need them before they can start projects, and in this financial climate, time is money -- the delay could kill development across the state."

Gallay agrees that the DEC's current situation could be bad for New Yorkers, the environment and business. "Industry wants a prompt response. Having low staff at the DEC hurts good businesses," he said. "The only people that benefit from lax regulation are bad businesses, and that hurts the businesses that are doing the right things. People think industry wants weak regulations. They don’t want weak, they want responsive, they want people to work with." According to Gallay, industry is going to have a hard time finding any sort of response from the DEC. Other environmental groups say that cleanup projects have been abandoned because the department doesn’t have enough staff to work on procuring project grants.

Firing Fallout

Grannis was perceived to be unafraid to speak out about what the cuts would mean for the state -- he is close to many legislators because of the years he spent as a member of the Assembly. Albany Assemblymember Jack McEneny called Grannis to tell him, "You are my hero" after the firing. Albany State Sen. Neil Breslin described Grannis as "the brightest person I know in state government."

Controversy over the firing still rages -- Grannis is so popular that legislators have been lead to speculate that his firing was part of the "dirty work" Paterson has undertaken as a favor for Andrew Cuomo to make things easier when the governor elect takes charge. They think Paterson is making unpopular moves for Cuomo because as a lame duck he has nothing left to lose.

Others openly wonder if Paterson fired Grannis or if the move was made independently by top Paterson aide Larry Schwartz. The Times Union, which first broke the DEC memo, reported that Schwartz phoned Grannis demanding he resign because the memo leaked. Grannis reportedly refused and demanded to speak to Paterson. Schwartz refused and then fired him. "Who exactly is running the state?" asked McEneny. "Schwartz or Paterson?" The Assembly plans hearings later this month.

Some activists and legislators want Cuomo to reappoint Grannis.

Leaving Superfund?

Beyond Grannis' firing and the cuts at the DEC, Paterson has proposed withdrawing New York from Superfund projects to clean up toxic sites. Discussing the cuts in a radio program on Oct. 28, Paterson said, "In DEC there will be job losses of approximately 150. This will cause us to reduce some of the services that we have. We’ll have to close a few educational programs, we will eliminate the state participation in Superfund. In other words where the federal government is conducting superfund activities, the state will not be involved."

The federal Environmental Protection Agency oversees Superfund projects across the nation, and whoever polluted the site is supposed to cover the cost, but the state pitches in 10 percent of the cost of the projects if the polluter can’t be found. In New York, state DEC staffers familiar with the cleanup area help the EPA adjust its plans to specific local concerns. No state in the union has ever withdrawn from the Superfund program.

Two long polluted sites in the city -- the Gowanus Canal and Newtown Creek -- are slated for clean up under the Superfund program. There are 114 Superfund sites in the state. What a state withdrawal would mean for these clean ups is unclear. An EPA spokesman said the agency had not received any proposal from the state and therefore could not speculate on what it would mean.

In fact, Paterson's proposal strikes some environmentalists and legislators as so outlandish that they do not take it completely seriously. "I'm not sure if it is a negotiating ploy, being used as a bargaining chip or what," said Bystryn. "I am certainly optimistic that they won't do this. We would be the first state in the nation."

But Gallay has a different take. "There is no sense in talking about bargaining chips when you have public health and safety at stake. These sites need funding. Some of these sites have been turned into recycling centers or receive other new investment after the cleanup. It helps the local economy. It is essential that the DEC stay involved. The feds have their plans and do a good job, but it is important to have the local office involved," he said.

As to how a withdrawl might work, Yancey Roy, spokesperson for the DEC, explained in an e-mail, "Typically speaking, EPA is the lead agency on federal [Superfund] sites and the state provides assistance/consultation. Often, this involves the state assigning a project manager to stay up to speed on the site, review test results and provide consultation, support and a state perspective. When warranted, DEC has assigned more than one person to a cleanup." In other words DEC staffers would no longer participate.

Gallay, who worked for the DEC, said that during his time there he saw how agency representatives from local offices familiar with the community near the site were able to help "get the right kind of cleanup for the community."

Laura Height of NYPIRG said that Paterson’s proposal flies in the face of logic. "Opting out of the superfund program makes no sense," she said. If the state needs money, she said it could apply for federal management assistance grants, such as the one it now has for the clean up of PCBs in the Hudson River But, she said, the state has not done this. "I don’t know if it is because they are short staffed or what," she added.

Looking Backward and Forward

Environmental advocates are united in their disdain for the way Paterson has dealt with the environment during the budget crisis, but they do not agree about what they can expect from the incoming Cuomo administration. Gallay estimates that most other agencies have faced about 8 percent cuts in their budgets; he said the DEC faces over 20 percent worth of cuts.

"During hard times we want a strong leader who can make smart, careful cuts. It is all going to hurt, but you want the cuts to be thoughtful. Paterson has not done that. He has made stupid cuts that have backfired on him," said Height.

Bystryn said she is ready to look ahead. "I'm not sure the environment was ever a major concern for Paterson, but Cuomo went to the trouble of putting together policy books which represent parts of an environmental agenda. He also went out of his way to seek our endorsement, and he didn't do that with everyone." Bystryn said she expects Cuomo will consult with her on the DEC budget come January.

"The state is nearly bankrupt, there are clearly going to be cuts, but we need to review each agency and find out what the core mission is and then make sure they are fully staffed to carry out that mission," she said. "I think the DEC's main mission is to protect New York's air, water and environment, and we need to make sure it is more than adequately staffed to do that."

Gallay said he has great hopes that the Cuomo administration will correct what he sees as Paterson's misdeeds. "All this governor has done is pour gas on the fire. I have every hope that Gov. Cuomo will administer his environmental agenda. He is a goal oriented man, and he published his environmental agenda, and he is not the kind of guy that wants to miss his goals. To meet them I think he will have to properly fund the DEC."

Cuomo’s Plans

Cuomo, though, has gone on the record supporting layoffs at the DEC. He has also taken an open stance on "hydrofracking" to extract natural gas from the Marcellus Shale. His "Cleaner, Greener NY" environmental agenda says he supports drilling, but only if it is safe. Environmentalists take that to mean that Cuomo would allow the drilling with DEC oversight, as well as with safeguards to insure the process will not pollute surrounding water supplies.

His statement also supports improving standards for the clean up of brownfields, partly contaminated former industrial sites, and backs tougher clean air standards. "The state is well served by enacting regulations to address climate change," the Cuomo campaign wrote. "Statutory standards provide certainty to industries and investment will follow." That again indicates to environmentalists that Cuomo supports staffing the agency that oversees polluters.

In its response to Cuomo"s "Cleaner, Greener NY," Environmental Advocates of New York praised a number of Cuomo's stances but its executive director, Rob Moore, closed with this:

"In the wake of the sudden dismissal of Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Pete Grannis on Oct. 21, ‘Cleaner, Greener NY’ may underestimate the mess that the next governor inherits at the DEC and the state's other environmental agencies. ... Over the last few years, New York's environmental agencies have been decimated. Many aspects of the 'Cleaner, Greener NY' agenda will be impossible to implement without a significant re-investment in the agencies and an aggressive rebuilding effort. The success or failure of the Cuomo campaign's agenda depends on a commitment to rebuild these agencies."

Height said she does not want to wish anything tragic on New York, but she is concerned that. as the DEC becomes less effective, conditions are developing that could lead to real environmental disaster. "The BP oil spill happened when people were asleep at the switch," she said. "We know the agency is already too short staffed to monitor polluters, so we are trusting polluters to follow the rules, and that is dangerous when it comes to public health and safety."

Making 'Fair Share' Fairer


garbage
 

This is the second article in a series of commentaries Gotham Gazette will run between now and Election Day on the charter proposals appearing on the November ballot.

For decades, some low-income communities of color in New York have borne a disproportionate burden of polluting infrastructure. Communities such as Sunset Park, the South Bronx, East Williamsburg and Greenpoint are saddled with the bulk of the city's waste transfer stations, sewage treatment plants, bus depots and other facilities, both publicly and privately owned.

These communities are also the reluctant hosts of acres of brownfields and some of the busiest highways in the nation.

 

Clusters of pollution-spewing facilities have wreaked environmental havoc in these neighborhoods. They have been linked to disproportionate rates of severe health problems, such as off-the-charts childhood asthma rates and other cardio-pulmonary illnesses. As a result, organizations like UPROSE and El Puente in Brooklyn, Manhattan’s West Harlem-Morningside Heights Sanitation Coalition, and the South Bronx’s Nos Quedamos, The Point and Youth Ministries for Peace & Justice have spearheaded campaigns for environmental justice to challenge these noxious burdens and the ineffective public policies that put them there.

Until now, this struggle for environmental justice has been underscored by the failure of the City Charter policy called “fair share.”

In November, however, a new iteration of fair share will be on the ballot, and it is a proposal worthy of support. If approved, community districts overrun by private and public waste management and transportation facilities will begin to have a more complete picture of their environmental burdens.

A History of Unfairness

In 1989, neighborhood activists saw a glimmer of hope.

That year, the Charter Revision Commission added "fair share” criteria to the City Charter, making New York the first city in the nation to attempt to plan for the siting of city facilities in a more transparent and balanced manner.

Fair share encourages a more equitable distribution of city facilities. According to the charter, agencies are required to analyze a community district's share of city facilities, like sanitation garages or sewage treatment plants, before siting, expanding, closing or reducing a facility. The city also is required to provide annual notice of its facility plans to local community boards before making final decisions. The Department of City Planning also must publish the Atlas of City-owned Properties and its accompanying map, which identifies the location of all city facilities by address and block and lot number.

The charter allows community boards to hold hearings and -- along with borough presidents -- propose alternative sites before city agencies reach a final siting decision. This unprecedented level of transparency was supposed to give overburdened communities additional tools and a platform for both agencies and the public to strive for greater fairness.

These provisions are advisory, so they were not designed to tie an agency's hands. Rather, they were intended to help agencies plan better, increase transparency and allow affected communities a voice in the process.

However, fair share hasn't produced greater fairness or useful transparency.

Chief among fair share’s problems is that the Atlas of City-owned Properties and accompanying map only include city facilities. Of course, not only facilities owned and operated by the city have environmental impacts. The question presented to voters in November, as part of Question 2 on the City Charter, would begin to resolve this by including all public and private waste management and transportation facilities that overburden communities on the city map.

Polluting facilities operated by the state, public authorities and the private sector also undermine our local air quality. For example, some of the worst environmental impacts to local air quality and road infrastructure in East Williamsburg, Greenpoint and the South Bronx were generated by dozens of private waste transfer stations handling the city's solid waste. Presently these facilities are left off of the city atlas and map. This proposal would change that.

Under the current system, fair share rules require agency planners to look only at private waste management facilities within a 400-foot radius of a proposed "local" city facility or within a 10-block radius of a proposed "regional" city facility. As a result, any private or public facility beyond the 400-foot radius -- about half the length of an average city block -- does not appear on any map or analysis of a proposed local city facility. With city agency planners only looking within arbitrary areas with no scientific, medical or engineering basis, the entire pollution picture is left largely unexamined.

Fairness in a New Era

The limitations of the city’s fair share policy is even more apparent in the 2002 New York City Waterfront Revitalization Program. The program actually encourages the concentration and clustering of industrial and maritime activities in six areas called "Significant Maritime and Industrial Areas." These designations are found in communities of color like Sunset Park, Red Hook, Brooklyn Navy Yard, Newtown Creek, the South Bronx and Staten Island's North Shore.

Development applications in these districts must meet fewer review standards than those for other waterfront areas, thereby easing the siting and clustering of polluting infrastructure. Moreover, all of these areas are in storm surge zones. Given the concentration of industrial materials and uses in these districts, any significant storm surge could expose local residents and workers to hazardous materials and contaminate waters and adjacent land with dangerous chemicals, heavy metals or other hazardous substances.

These issues loom large for the city's environmental justice communities, many of which are waterfront communities whose residents have advocated for maritime and industrial area reform.

If our city map had adequately included all city, state, federal and private facilities in each community district, officials might have reconsidered clustering even more industry in these areas.

Closing the Loopholes

The NYC Environmental Justice Alliance, our members and some allies proposed multiple amendments to the 2010 Charter Revision Commission to address the loopholes in the city’s fair share review process.

For example, the alliance proposed that power plants and other public and private infrastructure be added to the atlas and accompanying map. Given the technological advances since 1989, we also proposed that the city include environmental and public health data for each community district -- data that is already collected by the departments of health and environmental protection, but not shared in one centralized, public and easily accessible location. Why not put all this relevant data in the atlas and map? (For more, please read our testimony on our website.)

In the end, the commission only agreed to mandate the inclusion of all state, federal and private facilities that handle solid waste and transportation in the city facilities map.

Our advocacy campaign was undermined by several factors. Some good government and social justice allies politically miscalculated that the mayor would re-empanel another commission after 2010, and therefore urged commissioners to “go slow/get it right." Still other allies -- and some elected officials -- were single-issue advocates concerned only with term limits or nonpartisan elections, and urged the commission to do nothing at all.

The commission itself repeatedly insisted it would not take on sweeping overhauls, given its short time frame.

Thankfully, several commissioners understood the value and fairness of what environmental justice activists and our allies proposed and advocated on our behalf.

While the 2010 commission left many proposals off the table, the expansion of the city's map reflects a much-needed first step in overhauling fair share. By voting yes on the map for facility siting question, New Yorkers will finally begin to see how truly overburdened some communities are -- and demand that something be done to correct this environmental injustice.

Eddie Bautista is the executive director of the NYC Environmental Justice Alliance.

Tackling Fracking


Photo (cc) Helen Slottje
A natural gas drilling site in Pennsylvania.

The Paterson administration saw it coming -- the economic collapse, state budget deficits growing to unprecedented proportions. "In a budget crisis we look for a pot of gold," said Susan Lerner, director of Common Cause NY.

The Paterson administration's pot, though, holds not gold, but natural gas.With New York home to large natural gas reserves, some project that tapping into the gas stored in the Marcellus Shale formations in the Southern Tier and around the New York City watershed could generate $1.5 billion in revenue for the state by 2015. The drilling could bring jobs to the state's impoverished towns and boost their economies.Gaining access to that gas would require a more powerful version of a method used to extract the gas by blasting millions of gallons of water into wells.

Despite the possible economic benefits, the plan to extract natural gas in New York has attracted opponents, who claim the environmental risks of the method that would be needed to extract gas from the Marcellus Shale far outweigh any financial and economic benefits. They fear the chemicals used in the hydrofracking process or the gas itself could pollute local water supplies. Hydrofracking is not new. Natural gas wells across the state have used the process--just not with the power and amount of water and chemicals that would be needed to extract in the Marcellus Shale.

While some legislators seek to halt the drilling, questions of if and how to extract the state's natural gas rest with the Department of Environmental Conservation. That agency could delay any action until a new administration takes over in January.

Getting the Gas Out

The key issue in the debate revolves around hydraulic fracturing, or hydrofracking, as it has become known. This process used to harvest natural gas from the earth involves blasting millions of gallons of high pressure water and chemicals into holes drilled in the ground. Companies like Chesapeake Energy Corp. were ready and willing to use the process to tap the state's gas.

Citing what they say is widespread environmental damage in the West, environmentalists and others say the chemicals could make the water dangerous to drink and produce toxic runoff .

In 2008 Gov. David Paterson signed a bill designed to streamline the permitting process to allow companies to drill. He also ordered the Department of Environmental Conservation to update its generic environmental impact statement, a document that would set the standards for hydrofracking across the state. Lerner said she would describe the normally environmentally conscious Paterson administration as "bullish" on fracking.

It wasn't long before environmentalists and city officials were decrying the dangers of drilling anywhere near the city's watershed. They charged the process could contaminate the water -- at best, necessitating expensive filtration systems, at worst making it undrinkable.

After a great outcry from the city and concerns expressed by the Obama administration, Chesapeake Energy Corp., the only gas company that owns a lease on land near the city's watershed, promised it would not drill on the land. While the promise reassured some, it did not mean drilling would never take place there. Other companies, not bound by Chesapeake's pledge, could acquire leases. Natural gas prices are currently low, and there are many other less controversial places to find it. That, of course, could change.

In April the department announced that the generic environmental impact statement would not apply to drilling in the New York City and Syracuse watersheds, and instead applications for wells in those areas would be considered on an individual basis. This means companies would have to undergo rigorous review for each well they proposed to drill, including public hearings. Opponents of fracking saw this as a reprieve for the watershed since getting individual permits could be costly and cumbersome. And the review process would give the opposition a chance to fight every well.

This, too, though did not mean there never would be drilling in the city's watershed, and it did not apply to drilling in other parts of the state.

The process of setting conditions for using hydrofracking in upstate New York continued. The Department of Environmental Conservation has issued its draft supplemental generic environmental impact statement, laying out the basics of the final statement for public review.

Meanwhile, the department continues to review public comments made about the draft generic environmental impact statement. The agency has said it will present a complete statement, but it is unclear when. The deadline has been changed from this fall to actually, there is no deadline, according to a spokesman.

Opponents of fracking are cautiously optimistic about this. They worry that the draft environmental impact statement does not fully protect surrounding water supplies and does not get New York the best deal for its natural gas. They do say that New York would require more of companies than a lot of states. Among other things, New York, unlike other states, would compel companies to reveal the chemicals they plan to pump into the ground during fracking.

A number of advocates hope the statement won't be issued until the new administration takes office.

"We are hopeful that if the decision is put off until a new administration can weigh in then reason will prevail," said Kate Sinding of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Assembyman Robert Sweeney, chair of the Assembly’s Committee on Environmental Conservation, is sponsoring a bill that would place a moratorium on hydrofracking. "One of the reasons I want to pass the moratorium is that I want to give the incoming administration a chance to weigh in. I don't want to see a rush of permits in December and a new administration taking over in January and being stuck with it," he said.

The State Senate has already passed a moratorium.

The Promise

So what is the natural gas industry promising? At the most basic level, the state takes in fees for well permits according to the depth of the wells. Hydrofracking usually involves wells that range from 5,000 to 20,000 feet. The standard fee for a well of over 10,000 feet is $3,8000 plus $190 for each additional 500-feet of depth.

Brad Gill of the , a trade association founded in 1980, lists the financial rewards he sees for the state.

"Citizens benefit through lease revenues that are up to thousands of dollars an acre. Some have already earned a million dollars. I can just see the new John Deeres or kids going to college," he said.

If the land is owned by the county or state, the governmental entity benefits from lease payments. "Then there are the tax revenues," he said. "Right now the state makes over $10 million to $12 million a year in taxes on revenues created from drilling, but the general impact to the state could be over a billion dollars. There is also revenue to the state through jobs, new construction of buildings and people being hired.”

A study by Natural Resource Economics, Inc., projected that revenue from drilling could reach $1.5 billion by 2015.

Sweeney, though, said that money may not turn out to be the windfall some expect. "In Arkansas," he said, "the state has spent more money on repairing the roads damaged by the trucks and machinery required for the process than the state has made from taxes from drilling."

In the meantime, Sweeney said said he's still "hearing from people on both sides of the issue. But some people just see dollar signs, and I don't just mean the companies. I hear from Long Island residents who own property upstate and see opportunity in this."

The Promise of Jobs

Gill said that the state should not delay a decision forever. "People say to me 'the oil will be there.' Well it will, but jobs won't. They really won't," said Gill. "There are companies that are leaving and building out in Pennsylvania."

He cites , a company he says has moved "half their workforce" that was in New York out of state.

But some wonder how many and what kinds of jobs drilling operations would create.

"It is a boom-bust cycle," said Lerner. "Like the gold rush, the towns get a temporary economic boon." She says the workforce "is a group of roving energy professionals that live in motels and then move on. It is not the economic boon to these places it is thought to be."

Sweeney agrees. "They call them man camps in Colorado. They are surrounded by barbed wire. They keep the workers fenced in to stop problems between them and the locals," he said.

Gill says some traveling professionals are hired, but drilling does create significant numbers of local jobs. "We have contracts with some highly skilled workers, but we also create local jobs. We have a company with 70 percent local and 30 percent out of town," he said.

Battle for Hearts and Minds

Both sides in the dispute are fighting hard to win over public opinion -- and the state government. For the natural gas companies, Lerner said that means spending millions of dollars to counter the public outcry.

In June, Common Cause NY study that looked at how much money the natural gas industry is pouring into its campaign to get approval for hydrofracking. A similar Common Cause study in Pennsylvania had showed a striking relationship between campaign donations from the natural gas industry and well approvals. The New York study found the natural gas industry is spending its money in a different way here.

Since 2005 the companies have spent $2 million on lobbying -- most of money in the last two years. Lerner said that a good portion of recent expenditures have gone to buy advertising as the natural gas companies try to win over voters with the promise of financial benefits. Lerner said that, in some ways, those buys could be considered campaign expenditures, because the ads are airing during the campaign season.

"There has not been as much spent on campaign contributions -- not the level spent in Pennsylvania -- but the advertising is going on during the election season, and it may be a bleed-over," said Lerner.

Gill disputes that his industry has spent much on lobbying or advertising. In fact, he said, he thinks the anti-fracking movement is winning the battle for hearts and minds. "I think we are losing the battle for public opinion. I hate to admit it, but we are. I've always said emotion will win out over science and reason, much to my chagrin."

One indication of where public sentiment lies could be the fact that the Working Families Party, a pro-labor group, has created a campaign to support a moratorium on fracking. "I think that on one level you think, this is an environmental issue, so why is the WFP getting involved," said WFP spokesman Dan Levitan. “The hydrofracking fight is about corporate power vs. democratic power. It is about how far corporate power goes. We heard from our own members, who asked us to get into this."

And Levitan points out that the issue matters to people across the state. "There are few issues that traverse the great expanse of this state, but everyone drinks water, so this does."

We Wait

So now the natural gas industry and opponents of fracking wait for the Department of Environmental Conservation to provide its final draft generic environmental impact statement. In the meantime, the Assembly could convene as expected in November and pass the moratorium already passed by the Senate. Gill said he has been discussing the measure with the Assembly to point out what he calls flaws in the Senate bill. For example, he said, as currently written, the bill would ban shallow drilling that does not involve fracking, which has generally been accepted as safer than hydrofracking and has been going on in the state for decades.

"The way the Senate bill is written it would decimate the existing industry," said Gill. "More jobs lost -- but I’m sure they didn’t intend it that way." When asked how he would like to see things progress, Gill said although he sees the draft generic environmental impact statement as "a heavy hammer over the industry" and "a hard pill to swallow," he would like to see it enacted this fall.

In that case, "absent any litigation, drilling would begin this spring," Gill said. But he isn’t holding his breath.

The possible new state bosses have weighed in to some extent. Anti-fracking advocates are concerned that Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Cuomo is amenable to the natural gas industry and targeted him with petitions and protests. Gill said he has high hopes for Cuomo because he understands both "the safety concerns and the impact it would have on the economy of western New York."

It is expected his opponent, Carl Paladino, would be in favor of fewer restrictions, although his campaign did not respond to calls for comment.

In a written response, the campaign of the Democratic candidate for attorney general, State Sen. Eric Schneiderman, said, "Neither the state nor the federal government has determined that hydrofracking is a safe practice, and Eric will sue to make sure that no drilling takes place until it is." The campaign of Republican candidate for attorney general, Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan, did not respond to requests for comment.

Stated Meeting: Green Light!


Photo (cc) Gilderic

Shining a light on electricity usage, the City Council approved a package of legislation Wednesday that aims to increase efficiency, including a bill requiring commercial properties to use light sensors.

The bills all update the city's building code to incorporate and emphasize green building practices.

In addition, the council approved legislation to siphon off spaces in garages for shared vehicles, like Zipcar.

Green lights

The product of a green code task force convened by Council Speaker Christine Quinn and the Bloomberg administration, the legislative package is one of many steps to come that will force city buildings to use less energy, Quinn said.

"This package of legislation is turning the lights off on wasteful lighting," said Quinn.

One piece of the measures (Intro 266) would require commercial properties install sensors in small office spaces that would detect whether the room was occupied. The sensor would subsequently shut off the lights if it were vacant for more than 30 minutes. The bill does not take effect until January.

Office spaces with less than 200 square feet, break rooms and classrooms would all have to have sensors under the bill.

The council also approved legislation (Intros 262-A and 277-A) to allow occupant sensors and photosensors, which measure the amount of natural light in the area, in residential buildings, such as hallways or stairways, and in public areas of commercial buildings, like entrances. It would allow building owners to install energy efficient lighting, like motion sensors, in these areas as long as it would not present a safety hazard.

 

The final two bills modify the building code to force new projects to consider energy efficient standards (Intro 267-A) and revise the minimum lighting standards to use foot-candles instead of watts. Foot-candles measure luminosity, while the watt is a measure of power.

Car Share Spaces

The council wants to save a space for car shares.

It unanimously passed legislation to set aside space for car share programs in garages across the city to make the service more accessible to their growing membership.

A third of the total car-sharing members nationwide are within the five boroughs, according to the council. That membership increased by 50 percent in 2008 to 279,174 people.

The legislation approved Wednesday would not only ensure spaces are available in garages but it would also, for the first time, regulate where these vehicles are parked. It prohibits parking on residential streets, council officials said.

The bill allows car share vehicles to park in up to 40 percent of spaces in public garages, 20 percent in medium to high density residential garages and 10 percent in a lower density residential districts as well as commercial, community or manufacturing garages.

Another Natural Gas Controversy


Gas
Photo (cc) Voxphoto

While New Yorkers hotly debate the safety of hydraulic fracturing, a controversial method for extracting natural gas from upstate rock formations, a second natural gas issue has quietly started to simmer.

Houston-based Spectra Energy filed a preliminary federal application to construct approximately 20 miles of new natural gas pipeline across northern Staten Island and southwestern New Jersey, under the Hudson River and into Manhattan's trendy meatpacking district where it will connect to Con Edison lines around Gansevoort Street and the West Side Highway.

The project will expand and diversify an existing natural gas pipeline system between Staten Island and New Jersey. According to a Con Edison spokesperson, Chris Olert, the expansion will help meet growing customer demand for natural gas and improve the reliability of gas delivery. Currently, Con Edison delivers 225 billion cubic feet of natural gas a year to residential and commercial buildings. New pipelines will increase that capacity by 8 million cubic feet per day. In addition, Spectra estimates the project will create 100 new construction jobs when it launches in 2012 and 500 in 2013, when it goes online.

However, some communities along the new pipeline route, which include Staten Island's North Shore, Bayonne, Jersey City and Manhattan's West Village, have rallied to protest the project. In early August, the debate came to a head at a series of public scoping meetings held by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the primary federal agency regulating the project. Although attendance at the meetings was sometimes sparse, emotions surrounding the project were explosive.

"We don't want people or nature getting blown up," said Beryl Thurman, president of the North Shore Waterfront Conservancy of Staten Island.

Safety Concerns

Although natural gas explosions are relatively rare (the US Department of Transportation reported only 47 serious incidents across all US pipeline systems in 2009), they can be dangerous. Project opponents point out that just this summer, natural gas leaks led to explosions and deaths in Michigan, Texas and South Los Angeles. Closer to home, last February, a natural gas explosion in Middletown, Connecticut killed five people and in 1994 a natural gas pipeline ruptured in Edison, New Jersey, causing damage in excess of $25 million.

None of those places were as densely populated as these areas in New York and New Jersey. "Natural gas simply does not belong stored in an urban setting," stated Jersey City school superintendant, Charles Epps, pointing out that at least six schools sit within three blocks of the pipeline route. In addition, parts of the pipeline route come very close to the heavily trafficked New Jersey Turnpike, Holland Tunnel, and PATH Trains. The proposed line would also cross the West Side Highway.

These areas are as crowded with industries as they are with people. Fuel tanks line the Bayonne shore. Jersey City's Tropicana Plant, which includes a containment vessel for anhydrous ammonia -- a highly volatile gas --, is adjacent to the proposed pipeline route. This January, the federal Environmental Protection Agency designated Staten Island's North Shore one of the nation's ten "environmental justice showcase communities" because it houses at least 21 chemically contaminated sites all located within 70 feet of residential properties. Critics worry that project construction will release those contaminants and that various chemical combinations will make natural gas leaks more volatile and explosive.

Map Gas
Image from Spectra Energy

The pipelines' marine routes are equally contaminated from scores of petroleum, chemical and manufacturing plants that historically lined their shores. In a letter to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, New York/New Jersey Baykeeper attorney Chris Len expressed concern that "the pipeline [could] impact ecological resources already stressed past any reasonable limit by centuries of industrial development."

Responding to such fears, Spectra spokesperson Marylee Hanley said, "The pipeline will be built to exceed highest safety standards set by federal government." She also explained to the Staten Island Advance that pipelines are monitored continuously for leaks and pressure loss by meter stations. Valves can be closed by remote and inspectors physically check the land surrounding the pipelines three times a week. The pipes themselves would be buried up to 30 to 40 feet below ground, added Spectra Project Manager Ed Gonzalez.

But critics question Spectra's safety record. In April, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection fined one of the company's joint ventures $22,000 for two unpermitted oil discharges and for delaying notifying the state of the incidents. In 2004, an underground storage facility operated by Duke Energy (from which Spectra spun off in 2007) exploded in Moss Bluff, Texas, causing an emergency evacuation and over four days of fires with flames that exceeded 1,000 feet.

Competing for Space

Part of the problem is that in dense urban areas, pipelines vie for space with other infrastructure. Last month, the New York City Department of Environmental Protection expressed concerns that the pipeline would have serious impacts on water and sewer lines along its routes in both Manhattan and Staten Island. In a January letter to U.S. Senator Robert Menendez, Jersey City Mayor Jerramiah Healy argued the pipeline would complicate city's ongoing efforts to service its aging water and sewer infrastructure.

On Staten Island's North Shore, which has the borough's highest asthma rates, proposed project construction would re-route heavy truck traffic from Richmond Avenue to residential streets. Traffic effects are less clear where the pipeline crosses the West Side Highway, but at this month's scoping meeting, Gonzalez promised to "minimize traffic interruption."

Gonzalez also promised to work closely with nearby construction projects, which continue to proliferate in the far west village. On Gansevoort, for instance, about a block from where the pipeline will connect to Con Edison, the new Whitney Museum is scheduled to break ground in May 2011. In addition, the pipeline will enter Manhattan via the Gansevoort Peninsula, where the Hudson River Park Trust plans to build baseball fields, batting cages, and a play lawn over the next several years. But park trust Vice President for Marketing David Katz remained sanguine about the park's new neighbor, "We are working with [Spectra] to make sure the project does not impact current and future park plans," said Katz.

The Need for Jobs

For pipeline supporters the energy options, tax revenues and jobs it will produce balance out much of the concern. At the scoping meetings, Gonzalez estimated the project would generate $10 million in tax revenues in addition to hundreds of jobs. But residents of Staten Island's North Shore, which has the borough's median lowest income and highest unemployment rate, remained doubtful that project jobs would directly benefit them. "These are union, skilled labor jobs. If you don't have a union book, you're not getting out there doing that work," said Dixon.

In his January letter, Mayor Healy argued that neither jobs nor tax revenues outweigh the project's potential to limit residential and commercial development. According to Healy, because the project requires laying pipelines under privately owned land and given the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission's historic support for eminent domain would lower property values and inhibit investment. The Lefrak Organization, one of the city's largest developers, supported this claim. At Jersey City's scoping meeting a representative testified that some potential commercial tenants have already backed off after hearing about the pipeline.

Just before the scoping meetings Lefrak, Healy and others joined NY/NJ Baykeeper in calling for an extension to the August 20 public comment deadline. Considering the complex issues involved, NYNJ BayKeeper's Len called the four-week timeline "startlingly short. "Moreover, Len argued that many constituents directly affected by the project do not speak English and others were on vacation.

The Bayonne meeting drew more than 100 people and in Jersey City nearly 300 residents and public officials attended. But only approximately 10 to 15 people showed up in Staten Island, where the meeting coincided with the popular "National Night Out Against Crime." In Manhattan, one of the few residents present commented, "holding a meeting in August is a slap in the face to Manhattanites."

On the west side of Manhattan, Community Board 2 announced last week it would hold a public hearing with representatives from Spectra, Con Edison and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in October.

A Federal Energy Regulatory Commission spokesperson confirmed that it will accept comments by phone, mail and email until Spectra submits its formal application, which they project for December. Until then, Spectra stated that it would continue to adjust its route and respond to public input. For instance, just before the scoping meetings, they announced that they were considering moving the pipeline from Staten Island's heavily trafficked Richmond Terrace into the water around Shooters Island -- a World War I shipyard turned bird sanctuary.

Once it receives the formal application, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission will hold another round of public hearings before it issues an environmental impact statement. Looking forward to that period, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer issued a statement urging FERC to use "plain English "in explaining the impacts of the project. Stringer's office also offered to assist the commission in its public outreach efforts.

In the meantime, natural gas continues to be a pressing issue. Earlier this month, the New York State Senate approved a one-year moratorium on hydraulic fracturing (the state Assembly and Governor David Paterson are expected to follow suit). The new pipelines do not depend on that decision -- they will receive natural gas from the southeastern U.S. and Canada, as well as those parts of the Marcellus Shale in West Virginia and Pennsylvania, where hydraulic fracturing is expanding. Spectra has diverse interests in the shale. The company owns half of DCP Midstream Partners, a natural gas processor. DCP recently entered a joint venture with EQT Corp., Appalachia's largest natural gas exploration and production company to pursue natural gas opportunities in the Marcellus Shale upstate and the Huron Shale in extreme Southeast Ohio, West Virginia, and Northeast Kentucky.

The pipeline's links to upstate drilling are what alerted some people like Manhattan resident Wendy Byrne to its existence. Byrne said she has opposed hydraulic fracturing for some time and was concerned about the amount of methane released by natural gas.

For Staten Island's Thurman, challenging the Spectra pipeline represents solidarity with communities in Pennsylvania, who claim that hydraulic fracturing has destroyed their water supplies. "We're trying to get people to stop thinking in terms of ‘just put it anywhere, just not near me,'" she said.



Print Friendly and PDF

Editor's Choice


Gotham Gazette: Cuomo Heads Into State of the State After Big Announcements, With More to Say Cuomo Heads Into State of the State After Big Announcements, With More to Say Gotham Gazette: What To Do When The L Train Closes What To Do When The L Train Closes Gotham Gazette: To Eradicate Sex Trafficking, Prosecute the Pimps and Buyers To Eradicate Sex Trafficking, Prosecute the Pimps and Buyers Gotham Gazette: Concerns of ‘Voter Fatigue’ as New York Schedules Four 2016 Election Days Concerns of ‘Voter Fatigue’ as New York Schedules Four 2016 Election Days


Comments
Comment(s)

The comments section is provided as a free service to our readers. Gotham Gazette's editors reserve the right to delete any comments. Some reasons why comments might get deleted: inappropriate or offensive content, off-topic remarks or spam.