A study by the federal Environmental Protection Agency on toxic emissions across the country gave Queens less than stellar marks. The report, which tracks the amount of chemicals released into the land, air and water, listed Queens as the worst-performing borough in the city in terms of controlling toxic emissions.
The study cites Queens businesses for emitting over 116,000 pounds of toxins into the environment mostly through the air. In comparison, Manhattan businesses were found to have created a little over 50,000 pounds of toxins in the same time period.
Two of the worst offenders found were the now-closed Charles Poletti Power Plant in Astoria and the Airgas Refrigerants facility in Long Island City. Airgas Refrigerants did not respond to a request for comment.
The study cites locations across Queens as offenders, but most are located in Astoria and Long Island City. When asked about this, Dan Hendrick, spokesman for the New York League of Conservation Voters, was not surprised.
“That part of Queens has always been home to power plants, which release a lot of waste into the air,” Hendrick said. “Queens does have a relatively large industrial base in comparison to the other boroughs, so places like light manufacturers in Jamaica contribute to air pollution, but the power plants in Western Queens are probably the worst offenders in that regard.
“Because of how low rent used to be in the area, power companies chose to build more facilities in that area. But those places are going to be more of a problem as more people move into the area,” Hendrick added.
Elected officials in western Queens were also unsurprised by the findings of the study. Councilman Peter Vallone Jr. (D-Astoria), who has been against the proliferation of power plants in the area, said that air quality in Astoria has been a problem for too long.
“Between the power plants, the highways, and LaGuardia Airport, air quality is a major issue for the people of northwestern Queens,” the councilman said.
Vallone also said that the burden that Queens has in supplying the city’s power is unfair: “Mayor Bloomberg says that each borough must carry its fair share in regards to waste management, but the mayor’s office helped the state approve a new power station in a part of the city that has far too many of them.”
Assemblywoman Aravella Simotas (D-Astoria) also felt that air pollution has consistently been an issue in the community. She did say that progress has been made, citing the closure of the Charles Poletti Power Plant as an example.
“At the state level, we can and need to make sure that all of the state’s power plants are following environmental guidelines and reducing emissions,” the assemblywoman said.
State Sen. Michael Gianaris (D-Astoria) declined to comment on this story.
The borough’s statistically poor air quality also raises health concerns, especially with children. A 2008 study by the New York City Department of Health showed that child asthma rates remained steady from 2000 to 2008. In comparison, child asthma rates in Brooklyn, Manhattan and Staten Island decreased over the same period of time.
“Providing proper healthcare to these areas is also important,” Simotas said. “As long as air quality is a problem that people in western Queens face, we need to do everything in our power to help those most affected by it.”
The issue of power plants in the area is unlikely to go away any time soon; Long Island City has become a hot area for new residential developments, which bring higher demands for energy use. Studies predict that energy usage in the city is going to increase by up to 10 percent over the next 10 years.
On top of that, the energy burden of Queens could increase depending on the future of the Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant, which provides New York City with up to 30 percent of its energy, particularly in the summer months. Both houses of the state legislature have been considering requests for the plant to close for safety concerns.
Simotas admitted that, in the wake of the nuclear disaster in Japan, safety concerns about Indian Point were legitimate. However, Simotas also said that the plant’s closing could lead to the construction of more power plants in Queens.
Vallone agreed, saying, “If Indian Point closes, where do you think they’ll look to put new power plants? Northwestern Queens.”