Efforts to protect the environment and public health are vast in New York City, from the award winning work of the Department of Environmental Protection (NYC won the Platinum Water Excellence award this year) to the elected officials, political activists, community sustainability groups, academic lecturers, environmental lawyers and everyday eco-conscious earth-citizens.
But 2012 in NYC is marked historically for a time of ongoing environmental politics over energy sources, in particularly hydrofracking, and considered infrastructure from bike lanes to storm-surge barriers. Hurricane Sandy reawakened mainstream discussion on climate change, and for NYC, the question of how to survive climate change became more real than ever, with resilience becoming a mainstream political category.
At the beginning of the year, the State Assembly converged in Manhattan to question selected parties on why or why not to phase out the Indian Point nuclear plant in 2016.
The 2011 incident of radiation fallout in Fukushima, Japan happened to coincide with the period that 40-year nuclear plant licenses in the United States were reaching expiration, such as Indian Point, a plant about 30 miles north of the city, in the town of Buchanon, and number one on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s earthquake vulnerability list.
In front of the Assembly, defenders said shutting down the plant would mean over 1100 jobs lost and economic deletion to the nearby community. The Independent Systems Operator said upgrades to decongest electric transmission into lower New York would be paid for by the taxpayers though some transmission projects are already in the works. It said closing the plant would lead to blackouts, and a brief, unexplained blackout in the room caused laughter. A young woman from the Occupy movement led a disruptive chant in the proceedings, advocating for the phase-out.
Those chants and that conversation continued into the year with events parallel to the growing anti-nuclear movement in Japan.
Nukes proved to be a divisive topic however in the EJ movement, when in the spring, local EJ groups marked their differences on it tangentially in front of the State Department of Environmental Conservation. If IPEC phases out, there may be demand for new power plants. This concerned just one of the issues of the EJ movement this year, power plant siting.
The DEC converged EJ groups in the city to comment on Public Service Law, Article 10, which Governor Cuomo had required the DEC to amend under the Power New York Act of 2011. The purpose of Article 10, which had expired in 2003, was to limit C02 emissions and create further protections for low-income, minority and environmentally burdened communities in the permitting process for new plants. It required power plant operators, when requesting a permit to build a plant, to conduct a study that takes into account demographic and environmental information of the surrounding community.
The movement commended the resurrection of the law, as it had fought for it for many years, but asked the DEC to strengthen it in several ways, including doubling radii surrounding the site in the study from a half mile to two. The regulations went into effect in July but without an expansion of the half-mile radius.
It has now been four and a half years since former Governor Paterson authorized the DEC to write a new constitution, an “SGEIS,” for permitting oil and gas drilling before hydrofracking can take place. After the last round of hearings at the end of 2011, groups just rallied all the time during the lull in state processes.
But things did happen. In New York City, City Council environmental chair, David Bragdon and the city Environmental Department jumped on the earthquake buzz that particularly unfolded after unusual earthquakes in Youngstown, Ohio were linked to wastewater disposal at fracking sites, and fracking itself was linked to earthquakes in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. So the city requested a wider ban around the city’s watershed upstate to protect the aqueducts underground in case of quakes.
In June, the Cuomo administration said that beyond 2011’s proposed limited areas for fracking (including the NYC West of Hudson Watershed) it would only allow fracking in eight counties along the southern tier in west New York where fracking is most welcomed.
In July, Queens Democrat Tony Avella and other senators held a forum to investigate ethics between the DEC and the gas industry. Through a Freedom of Information Law request the Environmental Working Group obtained emails between the DEC and Albany lobbyist Tom West. In the emails, the DEC shared information of its proposed fracking regulations before the general public had a chance in the customary comment period, allowing the industry to weigh in sooner. West argued that the documents shared were limited and that it was common practice. He said the DEC tends to reach out to the industry in the rulemaking process.
Like residue from late 2011, the Environmental Solidarity Working Group of Occupy Wall Street continued to join other local environmental groups against the Spectra pipeline, to keep “fracked gas” out of NYC. The groups argued that gas from the Marcellus shale would bring radon into residential kitchens via stoves, prompting a health crisis.
In January, Dr. Marvin Resnikoff of Radioactive Waste Management Associates released a paper arguing that radon would not dissipate before reaching NYC stoves, citing information from the USGS.
A report by Dr. Lynn R. Anspaugh, commissioned by Spectra, said that the levels of radon in the gas at Lambertville, New Jersey, however, were 115 times less than Resnikoff’s estimate, and that the gas posed no radon risk.
Not buying anything industry-backed, entrusting Resnikoff, the anti-Spectra movement in the city engaged in protests throughout the year, each one very different (in addition to all the other fracking protests happening in NYC). One time the office of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission was visited with a letter (caught exclusively on Examiner.com), another time people painted their naked bodies green at the West Side Highway, or put pink polka dots on machinery, or marched through the hopping Meatpacking District at night in the summer, or got arrested at the West Side Highway, and the list goes on. On Earth Day, they marched from the BP on Houston to the High Line (near the construction site in Meatpacking) in the rain, where they stopped to sing “This Land is Your Land.” The groups enacted lawsuits as well. The movement gained the attention of the Villager and the Village Voice.
Meanwhile, more anti-gas activists sprung up, to stop the Rockaway Lateral pipeline from going through the Rockaways. The opposition involved gardeners at Floyd Bennett Garden, the largest community garden in New York City, with some 500 plots. The gas line proposal involves a metering and regulating station that would be about a couple hundred feet from the garden, off Flatbush Avenue, in a national park and recreation area. Opponents argue the station will create noise and emit toxic fumes, as well as carry “fracked gas” from the Marcellus Shale.
At the end of the summer, the Cuomo administration reversed on the eight-county plan, and announced it would take on what environmentalists had been calling for, a health study in addition to or within the SGEIS.
The DEC extended its rulemaking process for fracking by 90 days to allow Dr. Nirav Shah, the commissioner of Health to review the SGEIS. But to be allowed an extension, the DEC had to restart public comment period. So the public was given a thirty day window between December 12 and January 11 to file comments. Activists have been sending out emails about it almost everyday, and made a campaign called Thirty Days of Fracking Regs, which happens to coincide with and take on a similar tone as the fiscal cliff.
In October, New York Puerto Rican solidarity activists were happy to find that the Via Verde (“Gasoducto”) pipeline, which would use liquefied shale gas, had been cancelled due to, the utility said, low demand and costliness.
At the end of the year, congress and President Obama signed a law that would permit the Williams Transco company to apply for a permit to drill directionally the Rockaway pipeline through a national park, (Gateway National Recreation Area), which includes the Rockaway peninsula. This was after, Sandy hit the Rockaways.
Hurricane Sandy is known as one of the worst tragedies to occur in New York City, compared even to Sept. 11. It is a category on its own, outside of the domain of environmental. It was a weather event, a tragedy, then a humanitarian event and a fiscal topic.
However, it retriggered a mainstream discussion on climate change, and environmentalists and planners had already been preparing for and warning about events identical to Hurricane Sandy, whether or not Sandy was caused by climate change. And when such an event of scale actually happened, those people jumped in to help those in need.
At the end of 2011, James Gennaro, environmental chair of the City Council, held a hearing on three documents: the PlaNYC 2030, the ClimAID report and the IPCC report (and they also discussed Vision 2020), all state or city reports that dealt with climate resilience, which includes rising sea levels and intense storm surges. In 2011 and 2012, the city was only in the midst of evaluating information from experts who said, for example, the subway would be flooded in an intense storm. Yet Sandy was just around the corner.
Hurricane Sandy, after wrecking havoc in the Caribbean and swirling up the east coast, significantly damaged the tri-state area, killing over a hundred people in the Northeast. Low lying coastal areas of the city, including Coney Island, the Rockaways and parts of Staten Island and Lower Manhattan were flooded. More pervasively lights were out and people didn’t have heat for several days, and in hardest hit areas, stores were ruined, homes were completely destroyed, and struggles for basic survival became an almost pre-civilized, or post-civilized reality.
In an entire region that was affected, people still focused on the hardest hit areas, and even with transit out of service, all kinds of people from government, to aid organizations to individuals went into the severe areas to help.
Environmental and activist groups were among them. Green Peace, Solar One and solar companies brought solar panels to victims for electricity. Grassroots groups like United for Action used their email list serves not for politics but to solicit volunteers in Sandy relief. Occupy Sandy emerged, providing mutual aid, and Josh Fox, creator of “Gasland,” made a movie about it and projected it on a wall at a gas station in the East Village. Times Up! Environmental Organization managed to get their message in there, organizing what they called, “Fossil Fuel Disaster Relief Bike Rides,” in which up to dozens of people at a time carried supplies out to those in need in the weeks after the storm.
But for conservation groups, including the Parks Department and DEP, the action was environmentalism in the purest sense of the word, cleaning up the environment. Swindler Cove Park, for example, a landmark project of the New York Restoration Project, underwent flooding by the Harlem River and trees were uprooted. Parks, conservation and sustainable community groups across the city called on volunteers in their communities and took on rescue missions to parks and green space that they, in some cases, had already saved before, or had brought to life in the first place. New York 1, the news channel, gave its “New Yorker of the Week” award to the Bronx River Alliance, in its effort to restore the river, which suffered uprooted trees and flooding.
In the subterranean layer of environmental NYC, rooms filled with people interested in the next storm and how to handle it. Christine Quinn had famously called for billions of dollars in federal funding for storm protections, including natural wetlands to absorb water and –most talked about- storm barriers. Discussion arose about filling the subways with giant balloon plugs that have been in the works in West Virginia. At seminars scientists talked about elevating subway entrances and advancing subway vents. Scientists admitted that it could be decades before any of this funding will be necessary.
In one meeting, the scientists and government leaders involved were questioned by anti-gas activists, curious about the role of natural gas in fires that had erupted at Breezy Point and elsewhere, and about what they called potential flooding of the proposed gas metering and regulating station at Floyd Bennett Field.
This has become the norm in New York City. And the response was the norm, that natural gas is needed and the city isn’t likely going to change its mind on it, it is carved into the PlaNYC 2030. The city doesn’t have an official role in interstate gas line decisions, or even state drilling decisions, or nuclear or other plants outside the city, but it weighs in on those things as established in PlaNYC 2030. Through PlaNYC, the city has also enacted city code changes that went into effect this year, which mandate buildings to offset pollution by converting boilers, incentivizing natural gas, though it is only at about one percent of buildings.
In 2013, Mayor Bloomberg, who launched PlaNYC 2030 in 2007, will surrender the position to someone else.