By Jessica Meditz
As New York City’s heat waves continue to raise power demands, local communities are paying the ultimate price: their health.
Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, who chairs the Committee on Oversight and Reform, held a roundtable discussion at the Variety Boys and Girls Club of Queens in Astoria with members of the PEAK Coalition to discuss peaker plants and their harmful effects on the environment.
Peakers are power plants that are active only during times of peak demand. They are often the worst-polluting of the power plants, and their use can have significant health impacts on surrounding communities.
“It has been reported over 3,000 New Yorkers lose their lives from health conditions related to particulate matter pollution,” said Maloney. “And our city’s peaker power plants are chiefly responsible.
“For the 1.2 million New Yorkers living within one mile of a peaker, rates of asthma and deaths from COVID-19 are severely elevated,” she added.
There are 89 peaker plants in New York City, with 28 of them located in Maloney’s district, which includes parts of western Queens, north Brooklyn and Manhattan.
Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez also took part in the discussion, and said energy is not, in any sense, cheap.
“The price of ‘cheap’ energy has always been our lives, our health, our lungs, our cancer rates,” she said. “The economics of a peaker plant are not cheaper either.”
According to the congresswoman, peaker plant electricity is 1,300 percent more expensive in New York City than it is in the rest of the state.
Several panelists discussed ways their respective organizations have contributed to finding greener, more efficient solutions.
Annel Hernandez, associate director of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, said the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act sets a clear mandate that New York State must have an emission-free electricity sector by 2040.
“That means we need to start acting now in order to meet that deadline, and hopefully even exceed that deadline,” said Hernandez.
The PEAK Coalition partnered with the New York Power Authority to conduct research to understand how the city can transition to clean energy safely and equitably.
This year, the Renewable Rikers Act was passed, which calls for using the prison site to house renewable energy sources. Rikers Island is scheduled to be fully closed by 2027.
Anthony Rogers-Wright, director of Environmental Justice at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, partnered with the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, among other organizations, to get the initiative off the ground.
In response to a question from Congressman Hank Johnson of Georgia regarding peaker plants reporting their toxicity levels, Rogers-Wright cited the PEAKER Act.
“Congresswoman [Yvette] Clark and Senator [Kirsten] Gillibrand’s bill would require reporting from existing peaker plants so that we have all of the data,” he said.
The panelists discussed how the negative impacts of peaker plants are hidden from the public, especially since the harmful chemicals themselves are invisible. They emphasized that the PEAKER Act is a step in the right direction for accountability of the fossil fuel industry.
Environmental racism was a central talking point of the roundtable. Many of the city’s peaker plants are located near public housing developments, in which Black and Latino tenants predominantly live.
The Green New Deal for Public Housing Act, introduced by Ocasio-Cortez, started a dialogue between those communities and legislators.
Ilona Duverge, co-founder and director of the Movement School, said that this conversation was enlightening because she got to hear directly from the tenants about their everyday struggles, as well as their desire for a voice.
“It really came down to giving the people closest to the pain an opportunity to lead that change,” said Duverge.
“We definitely need to do a better job of engaging our communities in this process, and in return that will help empower them to actually work with us to create innovative solutions that are going to solve the crisis.”
“Believe it or not, the people that are living this day in and day out know the best,” she added.