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Brooklyn court to decide fate of 10 power plants

Two lawsuits over generators operated by the New York Power Authority converged in Brooklyn Appellate Court Friday, putting the longstanding question over the future of the 10 generators in the hands of a four-judge panel.

The hearing came one day after federal regulators approved a plan to limit wholesale power rates throughout the state this summer in an effort to avoid the hefty price hikes that had hit California.

At issue in both cases is whether the New York Power Authority should have carried out an environmental review before building the 10 natural gas turbines at six locations around the city and on Long Island.

NYPA officials contended the generators are needed to stave off a power crisis this summer and maintained the decision not to carry out an environmental review was well within the parameters of the law.

But attorneys from Silvercup Studios and New York Lawyers for the Public Interest argued in separate cases that NYPA should have performed a full environmental review before selecting sites for the generators.

Both cases are appeals of decisions made this spring in State Supreme Court. A decision is expected to be handed up by the end of the summer.

In the first case, NYPA disputed the decision of Queens Supreme Court Justice Joseph Golia, who sided with Silvercup when he ruled that the Power Authority had acted improperly in failing to conduct a full environmental review. Although Golia had ordered construction to immediately halt on the turbines, the Appellate Court issued an injunction allowing work to continue until it decided the case.

In the second case, the New York Lawyers presented arguments to counter a decision by Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Lawrence Knipel, who exonerated NYPA of any wrongdoing.

The New York Lawyers suit targeted 10 out of a total 11 turbines operated by NYPA, while Silvercup’s suit only dealt with two turbines located next to its property on Vernon Boulevard in Long Island City.

Silvercup, a film and television studio where “Sex and the City,” “The Sopranos” and other programs are produced, was joined in its suit by a coalition of community leaders and public officials who oppose the power plants in light of longstanding development plans for the Queens waterfront.

NYPA put up all 10 power plants within seven months of first announcing the project in November, a temporal feat it achieved by issuing a “negative declaration.” Such a statement relieves the agency of an obligation to perform an environmental review by declaring that the power plants would not significantly affect the surrounding community.

Issuing an environmental impact statement would have taken up to four months and delayed NYPA’s ambitious plans to begin operating all of the generators by June 1. The agency came close to meeting its goal, with eight of the 10 generators — including the two on Vernon Boulevard — operating by the end of last month.

Silvercup attorney Michael Zarin described NYPA’s process as “preordained,” arguing that NYPA would never have been able to site the generators on Vernon Boulevard had it conducted an environmental review and explored its impact on the community.

Zarin and Gail Suchman, the attorney arguing for New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, both stressed that the State Environmental Quality Review Act, or SEQRA, establishes a very low threshold to determine which projects warrant an environmental review.

The standard, Suchman said, is whether the project “may” have an impact on the surrounding community, a possibility that she said is very strong with NYPA’s turbines.

Suchman said the scientific evidence is “overwhelming and startling” that particles released in turbine emissions would likely have a “significant health impact” on the surrounding neighborhoods, where the air already has high levels of such pollutants.

NYPA attorney Steve Cass argued in response that NYPA examined the effect of such emissions and found them to be insignificant. Cass said NYPA “tried to bend over backwards to comply fully with SEQRA,” stressing that neither state nor federal environmental law even requires such a study of particulate matter to be conducted.

While Silvercup is demanding that the turbines be moved from the location, which is next to property where the studio intends to expand, New York Lawyers wants the generators shut down pending an environmental review.

The day before the hearings, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission voted to create a price cap that will kick in once electricity prices in the state rise to a certain level, the Associated Press reported.

Electricity current averages $60 per megawatt hour in the state.

Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 154

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