More than 50 percent of the City’s power comes from three power plants that sit directly across the river from Roosevelt Island, in Astoria and Long Island City. Councilmember Costa Constantinides, chair of the City Council’s Environmental Protection Committee, is leading the charge to demand that two of these plant operators, along with those of another four power plants in New York City, stop using the dirtiest grades of oil to power them.
Most fuel oil used to generate heat in buildings and steam electricity in power plants is one of three grades: number 6 oil, number 4 oil, or ultra low sulfur diesel 2.
“I call 6 oil and 4 oil the fast food of oil,” says Constantinides, whose district encompasses Astoria, parts of Jackson Heights, Woodside, and East Elmhurst. “They’re the worst for you, they’re the easiest to get, and they’re the cheapest. Six oil is the worst of the worst. It contains the most particulate matter, the most nitrous oxide, and the most sulfur oxide. That’s all the stuff that gets in your lungs.” And number 4 oil isn’t much better, he says. “It’s basically a diluted version of 6 oil.”
A 2015 law requires power plants in the City to stop using fuel oil number 6 by 2020 and number 4 oil by 2030, but Constantinides thinks the City can do better. His committee is working to fast-track the phase-out by five years – not just at power plants, but in the City’s buildings too. “There are 3,000 buildings in the City of New York that burn number 4,” says Constantinides.
In legislation introduced earlier this year, Constantinides calls for a phase-out of 4 oil in all forms by 2025. The bill is currently pending a vote by the City Council.
Big Allis sits directly across the East Channel from Roosevelt Island.
According to sponsors of the bill, which include Roosevelt Island’s own Councilmember Ben Kallos, accelerating the phase-out plan by even just five years would have a significant impact on the health of residents.
“Because of their sulfur content, burning number 6 and number 4 oils releases significant quantities of particulate matter in the air,” said Constantinides at an April hearing for the legislation. “These fine particles become embedded in people’s lungs and cannot be expectorated.” According to Constantinides, this fine particulate matter contributes to more than 2,000 deaths annually, 2,000 hospital admissions for heart and lung conditions annually, and approximately 238,000 and 84,000 annual emergency room visits for asthma in children and adults respectively, throughout the City.
According to John Lee, a deputy director in the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability, the pending legislation would prevent 150 premature deaths and 300 emergency room visits and hospitalizations over the five years.
Roosevelt Island’s position, between the Ravenswood Generating Station to the east, and the 74th Street Power Station on the Upper East side, places it in a particularly vulnerable spot. (The New York Power Authority Plant, located to the north of the Roosevelt Island bridge, burns natural gas, not oil).
“My district is surrounded by Con Ed and Ravenswood steam and power plants burning number 6 oil, leading to higher rates of air pollution than anywhere else in the City,” says Councilmember Ben Kallos. “We have been proud to work with Environmental Committee Chair Costa Constantinides to take on this problem, because no matter where on the East River you live, we all share the same air.”
In a 2014 article called, “America’s Dirtiest Power Plants - Polluters on a Global Scale,” the Environment New York Research & Policy Center held that the Ravenswood Generating Station, located just across the East Channel from Roosevelt Island, was the largest carbon polluter in the state. Its iconic red and white stacks are visible from nearly every part of the Island, as well as from Astoria and Midtown Manhattan. The plant is commonly known as Big Allis, a nickname that comes from its builder – the Allis-Chalmers Corporation – and the fact that, when it opened in 1965, it was the first million kilowatt power plant in the world.
“The thing that inspired me to look at Big Allis is the western portion of my district,” Constantinides says, pointing to the area on a large district map hanging up in his Astoria office. He says that the Zip codes nearest to Big Allis have higher than average ER visits and hospitalizations [relating to asthma/breathing complaints] compared to the rest of Queens. “And that’s not just in one segment of the population. That’s across the board – and those are serious numbers,” he explains. “What’s the smoking gun there? What’s the largest stationary source of pollution?”
He says that in 2014, Big Allis produced 306 million pounds of carbon dioxide, 5,066 pounds of sulfur oxide, 150 thousand pounds of nitrous oxide, and thousands of pounds of PM2.5, as well as trace amounts of lead, benzene, and formaldehyde.
PM2.5 is particulate matter with a diameter smaller than 2.5 microns. According to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, breathing air with a high PM2.5 concentration can lead to premature death, increased respiratory symptoms and disease, chronic bronchitis, and decreased lung function, particularly for individuals with asthma.
“They do this,” says Constantinides, referring to Big Allis, “right next to residents of public housing and right in the shadow of Roosevelt Island.”
Power Plant Operators
When asked whether power plant owners had been cooperating with efforts to curb number 4 oil at a faster pace, Constantinides replied, “Oh, hell no.” He says his committee has had to demand the data under the Freedom of Information law. “We got none of this for asking and being nice. They didn’t want to reveal any of this information.”
Local power plant operators also declined to appear at a November oversight hearing the committee held to discover what type of fuel is being burned, and what the operators are doing to lower emissions.
“They have not once come before the council,” says Constantinides. Instead, he says, they submitted testimony which downplayed the problem. Constantinides characterized their testimony as saying, “Constantinides is complaining about what is actually only seven percent of all emissions, and only 150 lives. Shouldn’t the councilmember do the things that matter, like transportation?”
“I can walk and chew gum at the same time,” retorts Constantinides. “I can focus on geothermal and still hold these guys accountable.”
He’s hoping for a more productive response from Helix Gen Funding, an affiliate of Midtown-based utility company LS Power, which paid $167.4 million for the Ravenswood Generating Station in June.
Constantinides sat down with the new owner before the purchase was finalized. “We had a good conversation. I made my position abundantly clear. They heard me out. They were shocked about the numbers and they expressed real concerns about the emissions and the asthma rates. It looked like genuine concern. That’s the best I can say. I look forward to working with them. If not, we will continue to press the issue as hard as we possibly can.”
The WIRE reached out to Helix Gen Funding for comment. As of press time, we had not heard back.
In his 10 years on the City Council’s Environmental Protection Committee, Costa Constantinides has sponsored and advocated for numerous bills to make New York a greener place.
Environmental Justice Many of the city’s power plants are near low income communities and large public housing projects, and they disproportionately affect people of color. Constantinides sponsored a bill that was signed into law that called for mapping the environmental justice areas of New York City, including the sites, facilities, and infrastructure which may raise environmental concerns. The bill also requires the information be made publicly available online, including an interactive map showing the boundaries of environmental justice areas within the City and the locations of sites, facilities and infrastructure which may raise environmental concerns.
Alternative Energy Constantinides has also sponsored legislation to encourage more use of solar, wind, geothermal, and biofuels. The Council unanimously passed his bill to reduce carbon emissions 80 percent by 2050. He also got a law passed requiring City capital projects of over $1 million to do a cost/benefit analysis to consider the social cost of carbon for the first time in City history.
Another bill requires the City to evaluate close to 3,000 City buildings for solar readiness.
Electric Vehicles A bill that will take effect in February will add 25 electric vehicle (EV) charges in the City. They will all be located in City-owned fields and public parking lots. Constantinides says, “This makes them publicly accessible.”
The Future Costa says he is focused on finding additional ways to phase out fossil fuel in the City. “There are a million buildings in New York City. 70% of our emissions come from buildings. Buildings are the way we will solve our emissions problem,” but, “How do we regulate new construction to be greener? And how do we retrofit the million buildings that are already here to be greener?” The even bigger challenge, he says is how to do it without stumping economic growth. “If it can be done, I will do it.”