Opinion

The Divide: Remembering Mother Grisom

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The Divide: Remembering Mother Grisom

Last week the New York Power Authority (NYPA) and the NYS Office of General Services (OGS) held a community informational meeting at the Albany Public Library’s Washington Avenue branch. The purpose of the meeting was to give residents an overview of the microgrid project proposed for the former ANSWERS plant in Sheridan Hollow and to gather feedback from the community. The meeting was pretty well attended, the comments and concerns raised by the community were on-point, and the bureaucratic non-answers were par for the course. However, the divide between siting environmentally unfriendly projects in low-income, inner-city neighborhoods made up of mostly people of color rather than in the more affluent and mostly white suburbs continues.

In a nutshell, New York State wants to repurpose the building that housed the now-closed ANSWERS incinerator plant into a cogeneration facility to supply the Empire State Plaza (ESP) with energy and save the state about $3 million a year in energy costs. The facility would consist of two 7.9 megawatt combustion gas turbines and will use the existing underground piping system to send the power to the ESP.  NYPA touts the energy efficiency of a microgrid system (80%) over the traditional boiler generating system of 50 percent.  On the surface, this looks like a good project: save the taxpayers money; ability to operate in a power outage; and added flexibility for the ESP. Beneath the surface, though, many questions await answers.

One question that has been asked by many residents and environmental/climate change advocates is why hasn’t the Request for Proposals (RFP) been made public? It has been requested under the Freedom of Information Law, but the release of the RFP has been delayed, with no concrete reason given by NYPA. The RFP is important because it will answer some of the questions raised by the public, such as: Were renewable sources of energy production included in the RFP or just natural gas and diesel? What does “local labor” mean? Was there a requirement that “local labor” include neighborhood-level workers or was it a broader definition that could leave out Albany residents during the construction of the mini power plant? Will the facility be designed so that those living in close proximity of the plant can share some of the energy cost-savings by being linked to the microgrid?  In other words, would the people most affected by the microgrid receive any direct benefit from the microgrid?

Another question raised was, if the state has banned fracking within its borders, why is it constructing a facility that will be using natural gas from fracked wells operating in other states? And the follow-up question: If the state is on a path to generate 50 percent of the state’s electricity from clean energy sources by 2030, then why is the state proposing to build a multi-million dollar plant that uses fossil fuels, including diesel?

The effect of the emissions from the plant on people’s health was also a major concern of the attendees and the group Sheridan Hollow Alliance for Renewable Energy (SHARE). SHARE, and those who are living adjacent to the shuttered plant, asked about the pollutants that will be spewing out of the cogeneration smoke stacks and what will be done to protect them from possible exposure to these pollutants. Of course, the answer given by the NYPA and OGS representatives was that nitrous oxides (NOx), carbon dioxide (C02), and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) would be reduced. But, they didn’t say reduced from what. Reduced from levels from the ANSWERS plant? Reduced from levels from the current emergency backup diesel-powered boilers? Reduced from what a plant that uses mostly diesel fuel would emit? The residents asked: what is the projected amount/tons of air contaminants that would be put into the atmosphere? The answer, it hasn’t been modeled yet. More bureaucratic speak for we don’t know, or we can’t/won’t tell you.

All of these questions on possible adverse health effects brought to mind memories of Mrs. Emily ‘Mother” Grisom. Mother Grisom sounded the bell about the dangers associated with the original ANSWERS plant thirty years ago. Grisom, who had moved into Sheridan Hollow in the 1960s and was a founding member of the Sheridan Hollow Neighborhood Association. Grisom provided the voice for her community when confronting the state on the ANSWERS plant. According to Aaron Mair (former president of the Arbor Hill Environmental Justice Corp), Grisom was “out there before anyone on this” (Times Union, 3/8/2005). As early as the 1980’s, Grisom called the plant a “death hole” and blamed it on causing numerous health problems in her predominantly black neighborhood. Grisom conducted her own door-to-door health survey, and found a high rate of asthma, cancers, and lung diseases afflicting her neighbors.

The health-related concerns possibly connected to the ANSWERS emissions that Mother Grisom raised thirty years ago are still on people’s minds today with the proposed microgrid facility. Unlike ANSWERS, the microgrid facility will not be burning garbage, but it will be using fracked natural gas. The fracking process uses many chemicals that are harmful to human health. So, it is a reasonable ‘ask’ of the residents of Sheridan Hollow and Arbor Hill if the air emissions from the cogeneration plant will be harmful to their health.

NYPA and OGS went on the record to confirm that a full environmental impact study would be undertaken before the microgrid is constructed. This was welcomed news. But, the state needs to go even further. A full health impact study must also be done before work on this plant commences. The possible health consequences that may result from the pollution emitted by this plant has to be assessed before moving forward with construction. During the ANSWERS debacle, the state kept telling the residents that the steam plant was safe. One headline from the Times Union in 1996 shouted that “DEC Claims Steam Plant Pollution Not Harmful,” even though DEC’s wildlife pathologist, Ward Stone, found that ash from the incinerator was “loaded with toxic heavy metals and carcinogenic compounds.”

And that is why the Emily Grisoms and the Charlene Bentons of the world must be remembered and their advocacy emulated. Without strong voices to speak up and speak out on issues like locating a power grid or a tar sands oil heating facility in low income, mostly communities of color, the environmental and health injustices impacting these neighborhoods will continue unabated.   

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