PEF Black Caucus, Women’s Comm. host forum on energy/pollution issue
By SHERRY HALBROOK
If you have ever doubted the power of community education and coalitions, you need to look no further than the remarkable success that was just achieved by PEF and a community-based coalition of groups, lawmakers, parents and professionals in derailing state plans to close Western New York Children’s Psychiatric Center.
That’s why PEF encourages its members to work with their neighbors and communities to address issues of common concern. And it is why members of the Albany Chapter of the Black Caucus of PEF and the PEF Region 8 Women’s Committee chose to work with the Sheridan Hollow Alliance for Renewable Energy (SHARE), the Capital Area Council of Churches, the Albany Chapter of the NAACP and other community groups to hold a public forum in April to provide information and air the serious health and environmental concerns of residents and workers in the Sheridan Hollow area of Albany related to the proposed expansion of an energy plant there.
The original plant was built in 1911 to generate heat that was piped underground a half mile to the NYS Capitol building. That plant has burned coal and oil. In 1981 the ANSWERS plant started its operations on the site burning trash and garbage, which continued until 1994. Now the plant burns fracked gas. All of this is to provide heating, cooling and electrical power sent to the Capitol and the Empire State Plaza.
The New York Power Authority proposes further expansion to convert the shuttered ANSWERS plant to a 16 megawatt micro-grid and co-generation plant, and some people who live and work in the area are worried it would increase pollution and health hazards. There is also a belief among some that the plant could and should be converted from burning fossil fuels to a reliance on modern renewable energy sources such as geo-thermal, solar and wind that do not pollute. However, NYPA has shown little interest in that option. All of this was presented at the forum held April 16 at the Albany Public Library.
Among the speakers was SHARE Co-Chair Merton D. Simpson Jr. who represents District 2, which includes the Sheridan Hollow neighborhood, in the Albany County Legislature. Other speakers were George Benson of the Albany Branch of the NAACP, Mark Dunlea of the Green Legal and Education Fund, and engineer Keith Schue who is technical advisor to SHARE. Jay Egg, the founder of Egg Geothermal Inc. participated by teleconference.
Simpson spoke of the environmental and health concerns of the residents of Sheridan Hollow who have been exposed to pollution from the plant, some families going back for generations. Simpson said he formerly lived at 295 Sheridan Ave. and he believes exposure to pollution from the plant contributed to the deaths of some of his own family members.
“They didn’t know what this black soot was doing to them,” Simpson said.
He also noted the high density neighborhood is home to many people of color and immigrants who don’t recognize the potential health risks there. And even as plans go forward to expand the plant’s operation, more housing is being planned for the area.
“Immigrants living one block away have no idea of what they are living next to and the issues it raises,” Simpson said.
“Studies and listening sessions don’t really cut it,” Simpson said. NYPA’s proposal “may yield some small offers of jobs or free energy for neighborhood residents, but it’s not a good trade-off for health threats to families. These are life and death issues.”
Simpson spoke of letters SHARE and the community coalition members sent to the governor praising his stance on the environment and his pledge to support the global climate treaty signed in Paris. The coalition called on the governor to “walk what he talked” and insist on safe, renewable energy sources for the state Capitol and offices. Simpson invited interested members of the audience to participate in a rally April 23 at the Sheridan Hollow plant and a march to the Capitol.
“We need to hold the governor to what he says,” Simpson said.
Other speakers, including Schue and Egg reviewed the technical issues and how renewable energy could be used to supply the heating, cooling and electrical demands of the state plaza and offices.
Egg said it is clear the site in Sheridan Hollow is a poor location and “would never be chosen today.” He also called for the governor and NYPA to live up to their claims of environmental leadership.
“They claim to have a commitment to this neighborhood and we need to hold them to that. Our main goal is to improve the situation.”
Schue told the audience the outcome of this issue “will either set a good precedent or a bad precedent” for future energy decisions. The continued dependence on fossil fuels at the plant would be a “perpetuation of a problem that goes back 100 years.”
Benson and Simpson said the project has racial overtones because “the steam tunnel serves as a barrier of segregation separating those who consume the energy from those who suffer from the pollution.”
“It took us 10 years to shut down the ANSWERS plant,” Dunlea said. He called for the state pension system to divest from fossil fuels. “We’ve talked to top-level people at the state and they said they knew nothing about it.
“It’s important we do what we can right now for the people in the neighborhood,” Dunlea said. “It’s so shocking the state would expand the plant. It’s the most hypocritical thing. It’s so shocking, it’s egregious. Enough is enough already!”
“It took soot on the Governor’s Mansion before they shut down ANSWERS,” Simpson said. “If we work with elected officials in an election year, that could be a coalition of forces that might make a difference. No amount of energy (for this effort) is too much, because the stakes are so high. We must do everything we can.”