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State delays ruling on Astoria power plant

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The state has indefinitely postponed its anticipated approval of the New York Power Authority’s controversial expansion of the Poletti power plant in northern Astoria, leaving more time for the agency to consider the concerns of local environment groups, NYPA officials said.

The New York State Siting Board on Electric Generation was originally scheduled to render its decision May 16, but the hearing was moved to May 22 and finally postponed indefinitely.

“We asked for the postponement to continue the dialogue with interested parties,” NYPA spokeswoman Connie Cullen said Tuesday.

NYPA is asking for permission to construct a new 500-megawatt power plant on the same site as the existing 825-megawatt Charles Poletti Power Project, which occupies a property wedged between the East River and 20th Avenue at the northern tip of Astoria.

The Siting Board called for the project to be approved in a recommended decision issued Dec. 17. The application has been pending before the board for about a year.

But environmental groups have demanded that NYPA first repower the current 25-year-old plant — renovating it to decrease emissions while increasing output — and reduce the amount of small particulate matter released from its smokestacks.

Cullen said those concerns “will continue to play a part in future discussions.”

Assemblyman Michael Gianaris (D-Astoria), who has long fought against the proliferation of power plants in western Queens, responded to the postponement with cautious optimism.

“It’s a positive development,” he said Saturday. “Hopefully, the result will be positive and won’t just be kind of a delay in the process without any real tangible results. We’ve been pounding away on this issue for a long, long time.”

Among the non-profit organizations listed as active parties in the application are the Astoria-based environmental group CHOKE, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the New York Public Interest Research Group and the West Queens Greens.

But Ashok Gupta, the senior energy economist at the NRDC, said Tuesday the Power Authority had yet to reach out with proposals to appease the group’s concerns about the expansion’s environmental impact.

“At this point the environmental groups are opposing the Poletti expansion, and if the Power Authority wants to negotiate, the ball is in their court,” Gupta said. “They have to come forward with counter proposals to clean up the existing plant.”

Lisa Garcia, a staff attorney with NYPIRG, said the group has not heard from NYPA since discussing possible settlements during two meetings earlier this year.

“They haven’t really reached out to come to any type of agreement besides those two times,” she said.

Both Gupta and Garcia said NYPA officials did inform them in a recent letter that the Siting Board’s decision would be delayed until June 12.

Gupta admitted repowering the existing plant presents difficulties because the facility would have to be shut down for a time, which may not be possible until the new plant begins operating. But he said other options like burning more gas and less oil as a way to lower emissions should be considered as alternatives.

The planned expansion has faced strong opposition from the community, even prompting a demonstration outside the NYPA property last year that attracted 80 persons toting signs that read “Save Our Children” and “Welcome to Asthma Alley.”

Regardless of whether or not NYPA makes concessions to the environmental groups, Gupta said he expects the Siting Board to give its approval.

“If and when they do, we will challenge it,” he said.

Community leaders have long opposed the construction of additional power plants in western Queens, where four facilities capable of producing nearly 5,000 megawatts of power already exist.

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

Posted 7:05 pm, October 10, 2011
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