On January 11, 2021 the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA) Generation Advisory Panel met as part of the Climate Action Council Scoping Plan development process. During that meeting one discussion considered the health effects of New York City peaking power plants on environmental justice communities. The CLCPA process focus on this problem needs to consider the impacts of the solutions proposed as alternatives.
On July 18, 2019 New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed the CLCPA which establishes targets for decreasing greenhouse gas emissions, increasing renewable electricity production, and improving energy efficiency. I have written extensively on implementation of the CLCPA closely because its implementation affects my future as a New Yorker. I have described the law in general, evaluated its feasibility, estimated costs, described supporting regulations, listed the scoping plan strategies, summarized some of the meetings and complained that its advocates constantly confuse weather and climate. The opinions expressed in this post do not reflect the position of any of my previous employers or any other company I have been associated with, these comments are mine alone.
The January 11, 2021 the Generation Advisory Panel notes document the discussion about New York City peaking power plants. Following the publication of the Physicians, Scientists, and Engineers (PSE) for Healthy Energy report Opportunities for Replacing Peaker Plants with Energy Storage in New York State last summer, these plants became a touchstone for environmental justice issues in New York City. I discussed how the analysis was used in the PEAK Coalition report entitled: “Dirty Energy, Big Money”. In another post provided information on the primary air quality problem associated with these facilities, the Peak Coalition organizations, the State’s response to date, the underlying issue of environmental justice and addressed the motivation for the analysis. A second post addressed the rationale and feasibility of the proposed plan relative to environmental effects, affordability, and reliability. All three reports were also summarized.
Since the Power Generation Advisory Panel meeting, I prepared a post explaining that the Peak Coalition analysis of peaking plants misses the point of peaking plants and their environmental impacts. The claimed air quality health impacts are from ozone and inhalable particulates. Both are secondary pollutants that are not directly emitted by the peaking power plants so do not affect local communities as alleged. On the other hand, the proposed solutions have much greater health impacts than the air quality problems that are present in New York City’s environmental justice communities.
I prepared a post specifically on New York City PM2.5 because the primary public health reference in the PEAK Coalition report was the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene’s (DOHMH) Air Pollution and the Health of New Yorkers report. The PEAK coalition description of air quality public health impacts quotes the conclusion from the DOHMOH report: “Each year, PM2.5 pollution in [New York City] causes more than 3,000 deaths, 2,000 hospital admissions for lung and heart conditions, and approximately 6,000 emergency department visits for asthma in children and adults.” These conclusions are for average air pollution levels in New York City as a whole over the period 2005-2007.
In my analysis I found that the DOHMOH report claimed that:
Even a feasible, modest reduction (10%) in PM2.5 concentrations could prevent more than 300 premature deaths, 200 hospital admissions and 600 emergency department visits. Achieving the PlaNYC goal of “cleanest air of any big city” would result in even more substantial public health benefits.
It is rarely noted by environmental activists that PM2.5 air quality has improved markedly since 1999 mostly because of national reductions in sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides emissions. The NYS DEC air quality monitoring system has operated a PM2.5 monitor at the Botanical Garden in New York City since 1999 so I compared the data from that site for the same period as this analysis relative to the most recent data available (Data from Figure 4. Baseline annual average PM2.5 levels in New York City). The Botanical Garden site had an annual average PM2.5 level of 13 µg/m3 for the same period as the report’s 13.9 µg/m3 “current conditions” city-wide average (my estimate based on their graph). The important thing to note is that the latest available average (2016-2018) for a comparable three-year average at the Botanical Garden is 8.1 µg/m3 which represents a 38% decrease. That is substantially lower than the PlaNYC goal of “cleanest air of any big city” scenario at an estimated city-wide average of 10.9 µg/m3.
Note that in DOHMOH Table 5 the annual health events for the 10% reduction and “cleanest” city scenarios are shown as changes not as the total number of events listed for the current level scenario. My modified table (Modified Table 5. Annual health events attributable to citywide PM2 5 level) converts those estimates to totals so that the numbers are directly comparable. I excluded the confidence interval information because I don’t know how to convert them in this instance. I estimated the health impact improvements due to the observed reductions in PM2.5 as shown in the last three columns in the modified table. I estimate that using the DOHMOH methodology the observed reduction in PM2.5 concentrations prevented nearly 1,300 premature deaths, 800 hospital admissions and 2,400 emergency department visits. It is important to note that New York’s power generation fleet cannot do much more to continue these health improvements simply because the emissions are so low now tht comparable emission reductions are not possible. In any event the peaker units in the city don’t contribute to these secondary pollutant impacts.
Environmental Justice Hypocritical Tradeoffs
The apparent preferred option to fossil-fired power plants is to use energy storage ultimately powered using renewables. Energy storage, wind generation and solar generation technology all require rare earth metals found in terrestrial rocks in infinitesimal amounts which have superb magnetic, catalytic and optical properties needed for these resources. Therein lies an environmental justice problem unless it is addressed in the CLCPA process..
French journalist and documentary filmmaker Guillaume Pitron has been following the global trade in rare earth metals. Unfortunately, mining these materials come with heavy environmental and social costs. Mining generates massive amounts of polluted wastewater, which left untreated, poisons crops and makes people sick. Guillaume documents these issues in his 2018 book “Rare Metals War’. Recently his work was summarized in the article “Toxic secrets behind your mobile phone: Electric cars, wind turbines and solar panels… how our so-called green world depends on the mining of rare metals which is a filthy, amoral industry totally dominated by China”.
Pitron explains that he visited the Weikuang Dam – an artificial lake into which metallic intestines regurgitate torrents of black water from the nearby refineries. He looked ten square kilometres of toxic effluent. He went to a village called Dalahai on another side of the artificial lake. Here, the thousands of inhabitants breathe in the toxic discharge of the reservoir as well as eating produce, such as corn and buckwheat, grown in it. What he found was a real environmental nightmare:
Cancer affects the local population and many villagers have died. The hair of young men barely aged 30 has suddenly turned white. Children grow up without developing any teeth.
One villager, a 54-year-old called Li Xinxia, confided in me despite knowing it’s a dangerous subject. He said: ‘There are a lot of sick people here. Cancer, strokes, high blood pressure… almost all of us are affected. We are in a grave situation. They did some tests and our village was nicknamed “the cancer village”. We know the air we breathe is toxic and that we don’t have that much longer to live.’
The provincial authorities offered villagers compensation to relocate but these farming folk were reluctant to move to high-rise flats in a neighbouring town.
In short, it is a disaster area.
When you consider the immense effort necessary to produce these rare earth metals for batteries I believe it is hypocritical to demand replacement of fossil-fired power plants without considering the environmental impacts of its alternatives. In the case of New York City power plants, the health impacts associated with the power plants are statistical creations whereas the health impacts of rare earth metal extraction are incontrovertible acute impacts. While there still is room for improvement in New York, no children are growing up without developing teeth.
One of the fundamental problems with any Greenhouse Gas emission reduction program is leakage. Pollution leakage refers to the situation where a pollution reduction policy simply moves the pollution around the globe rather than actually reducing it. Similarly, economic leakage is a problem where the increased costs inside the control area leads to business leaving for non-affected areas. There also is an economic leakage effect in electric systems where a carbon policy in one jurisdiction may affect the dispatch order and increase costs to consumers in another jurisdiction. I also submit that environmental impact leakage where efforts to reduce much greater impacts are the result elsewhere.
The CLCPA specifically mandates that emissions inventories for the energy sector include an estimate of what may be referred to as the lifecycle, fuel cycle, or out-of-state upstream emissions associated with in-state energy demand and consumption. However, because the replacement renewable energy resources are dependent upon rare earth metals there is a large environmental problem associated with their deployment. It is hypocritical for the CLCPA to demand lifecycle analyses of one aspect of energy development but not all others. Therefore, the implementation process should demand ethically sourced rare earth metals be used for batteries, wind energy, and solar energy.