ASTORIA, NY—The transformer explosion that illuminated the New York City skyline late Thursday night came from one of the state’s dirtiest plants, casting new light on the city’s dependence on antiquated oil-burning power stations and bolstering calls for cleaner electricity.
This densely-populated area of northwestern Queens provides nearly half the city’s electricity from aging plants that burn number 6 fuel oil, a thick, viscous oil blend considered one of the most polluting energy sources in the world.
The Astoria Generating Station, where the explosion occurred around 9 p.m., burns 3,039,000 gallons of number 6 fuel oil a year. The Ravenswood Generating Station, the towering four-smokestack facility on the East River in Long Island City, burns another 3,264,000 gallons per year and was ranked as the state’s largest carbon polluter in 2014.
The New York City Department of Health found higher air pollution levels in Astoria and Long Island City than the rest of the borough or city. According to the city’s most recent community health report for the neighborhoods, the levels of PM2.5—the most harmful type of particulate matter, fine-grain pollutants that wedge into lungs when inhaled—hit 8.9 micrograms per cubic meter. That compared to 8.4 micrograms per cubic meter in Queens overall and 8.6 citywide.
Local officials have long blamed the plants for higher levels of asthma, and last year the city council passed a bill requiring the utility operators to stop using fuel oil number 6 by 2020 and number 4 oil by 2030. Transformers can malfunction regardless of the fuel source. But the explosion on Thursday night could add new pressure to go further, phasing out fossil fuel use altogether and converting the stations to renewable sources.
“This is a very old and very polluting power plant that should have been shut down quite a while ago,” Judith Enck, the former Environmental Protection Agency regional administrator for New York, told HuffPost late Thursday. “It’s a reminder that New York needs to accelerate efforts to phase out fossil fuels.”
Standing outside the gates of the Astoria Generating Station on Thursday night, state Sen.-elect Jessica Ramos, one of the insurgent Democrats who ousted a conservative incumbent in last month’s election, vowed to co-sponsor the Climate and Community Protection Act (CCPA) next year.