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Power Struggle

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The control center runs with the precision of a military agency, but it has the geekish camaraderie of a Silicon Alley start-up. "Hey -- I betcha don't know what the difference is between a mho and an ohm!" jokes Castle, jabbing one of his colleagues in the side. He and one of the other operators furrow their brows. "Just like the words, they're opposites -- one's a measure of resistance, and one's a measure of conductivity!" Both of the operators slap their foreheads in mock exasperation.

"Even if I come in at 5:30 in the morning and leave at 7:30 at night, I'm not ready to go home," Castle confides later in the spare, corporate-looking lobby. "I just go out there and sit in the control room. Guys will ask me questions and I'll just sit there and sorta soak it in. And I'll just think, I can't believe it . . . what an awesome job!"

Before Pataki's New York State Power Authority announced that it was building eleven emergency turbines, Tony Gigantiello was a school custodian who ran high-pressure boilers. Before that, he was a city engineer who ran air-conditioner turbines in the basements of skyscrapers. With a Magnum, P.I., mustache and the square stance of a linebacker, he's an unlikely choice to become the Erin Brockovich of Astoria.

On a blustery morning in winter, Gigantiello climbs onto a plywood stage erected for the day just north of the Queensboro Bridge. As a small crowd of neighborhood residents cheer and half a dozen TV cameras focus in, he delivers a passionate screed about why the new NYPA turbines shouldn't be put in his neighborhood -- or anyone's. "This is not a nimby fight," he says, his husky voice rising to a yell. Albany is distorting statistics to underrepresent the state's energy supply, he says, so Pataki can keep electricity prices down and voters happy for the upcoming election. The turbines that will be polluting his neighborhood by June, he continues, aren't even necessary.

He's referring to research by Ashok Gupta, energy economist of the Natural Resources Defense Council, that shows that New York City will have more energy available this summer than the ISO has predicted. By calculating the supply of electricity on a plant-by-plant basis, he's come up with numbers that call into question Albany's official conclusions -- and even the predictions of a summer energy crisis that the Pataki administration used to make its case to build the emergency turbines. "They made the decision to build the plants," says Gail Suchman, an environmental lawyer. "Then they grasped for numbers that would enable them to justify it. NYPA circumvented the law."

"If customers are going to be able to pay their utility bills, they have to be breathing."

One by one, Astoria residents who belong to the community group Gigantiello leads, choke (Coalition Helping to Organize a Kleaner Environment), step onto the stage to argue that there's already too much pollution in their neighborhood because of existing power plants. A young woman born and raised next to the Poletti plant in Astoria says she was diagnosed with lung cancer at 27, having never smoked a cigarette in her life. A father who lives in a nearby housing project remembers a night last summer when he checked himself and each of his five children into the emergency room with asthma attacks. City Council chairman and mayoral candidate Peter Vallone takes the microphone to condemn "environmental racism." As he speaks, a hundred yards behind the stage, construction workers are putting up the cement walls that will surround the new turbine.

Besides blighting the landscape and lowering property values, power plants and turbines also spew particulate matter, microscopic soot made up of metals and carbon. When inhaled, the particles can become embedded in the lungs and pass into the bloodstream, causing and aggravating heart and respiratory illnesses. Whereas much of the environmental debate has traditionally focused on greenhouse gasses, particulate matter is becoming a major concern. In April, the EPA issued a report confirming studies that found strong links between the recent rise in levels of particulate matter and a rise in death rates.

New York City has one of the highest rates of particulate-matter concentration in the U.S., which is the main reason local emergency rooms treat 46,000 pollution-related asthma attacks a year, according to a 2000 study by the Clean Air Task Force. Already, New York has 2,290 deaths a year related to particulate-matter pollution. If the standard for particulate-matter pollution supported by Christine Whitman's EPA were enacted by the Bush White House, New York would already be well above it.

The problem is especially bad in areas zoned for industrial development, generally also home to minority and low-income communities. All eleven turbines are located in such neighborhoods, many of which already have other polluting facilities like bus depots and waste-transfer stations. choke is only one of the organizations that have protested NYPA's decision to build turbines without subjecting them to the normal environmental-review process. There's also Williamsburg's Stop the Barge and El Puente, the Bronx's Nos Quedamos, the United Puerto Rican Organization of Sunset Park (uprose), and Communities United for Responsible Energy (cure), an umbrella organization that coordinates their efforts. In April, a dozen community groups represented by Gail Suchman of New York Lawyers for the Public Interest filed a lawsuit against NYPA to stop construction on the turbines. Although they lost -- they filed an appeal, which will be heard June 29 -- their case received endorsements from national environmental groups including the Natural Resources Defense Council and Environmental Advocates.

One of their less likely allies was Silvercup Studios, the Queens filming location for The Sopranos and Sex and the City, which filed a separate suit arguing that the proposed turbines on the Queens waterfront would interfere with owners Stuart and Michael Suna's plan to make the area "the Hollywood of the East Coast." In April, the State Supreme Court ordered NYPA to halt construction on those two turbines, on the grounds that the agency had failed to consider whether they would interfere with business development and pose an environmental threat to the community. On the evidence of Gupta's numbers, the Judge ruled that NYPA and the ISO couldn't make a convincing case that New York was facing an imminent energy crisis in the first place. NYPA appealed the decision and was granted a temporary stay that allowed the agency to continue construction.

So how did we get into this mess, anyway? Although New York's energy problem is different from California's, both share some roots in an unanticipated demand for electricity. Like many other states, we simply didn't see it coming. With a healthy reserve margin and little political interest in conservation or increasing the power supply, New York hasn't built a major power plant in 30 years.

But there's plenty of blame to go around. When Governor Pataki took office in 1995, he took his cues from what Reagan did on a national level in the eighties. He shut down the New York State Energy Office, then charged with planning new plants, and reduced or eliminated many conservation and alternative-energy programs in preparation for his deregulation efforts.

In 1997, when he opened New York State's power market to competing energy suppliers, Pataki ended Con Ed's regulated monopoly on every aspect of the city's electricity-production-and-delivery process. Con Ed remains the owner and operator of the electricity grid, but it was forced to sell off its generators and allow other companies to pump energy into its wires. (In media terms, the grid would be Time Warner's cable system and the energy would be content from MTV or Showtime.) For the first time, New Yorkers could choose their energy provider the way they picked their long-distance carrier, and receive two separate bills: one from Con Ed for their use of the grid and another from an energy provider for the power they used. (Since there's no way to route electricity from a particular generator to a particular consumer, independent providers simply determine how much energy their customers are using and pump that amount into the grid.) Since then, New Yorkers who receive electricity bills from Con Ed have really been purchasing energy it buys from other companies.


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