Danskammer’s Disappearing Act: a case study in environmental injustice.

What happens when you disappear an entire community from view when making the case to build yet another fracked gas power plant? You are essentially lying with maps. This is the case with the Danskammer power plant, and the result is nothing short of environmental injustice.

The Hudson Valley is now overbuilt with fracked gas power plants, with a new one on the way. Situated between the newly built CPV Energy Valley Center to the west, and the Cricket Valley Energy Center to the east, The Danskammer Project would repower a decrepit, barely operating 20th century gas plant slightly north of Newburgh, New York — a minority majority, post-industrial city.

Following the path of all state power projects, Danskammer is currently winding its way through a permitting process marked out by the NYS Department of Public Service. As part of this permitting course, Danskammer has now submitted its certificate application including both mapping of Potential Environmental Justice Areas (PEJAs) and modeled air impacts. Unsurprisingly, the application claims no significant adverse impacts due to a persistent and insidious quirk of geographic aggregation known as NAAQS.

The EPA’s National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) establishes attaininment and nonattainment geographic zones across the country. The technical term “nonattainment” is a procedural categorization for substandard air quality. As long as air quality within a containing zone doesn’t tip over into nonattainment status across any 6 criteria pollutants due to a proposed project, the no significant adverse impact badge is easily achieved, and barring further complication, a plant gets built.

While NAAQS is useful to monitor air quality across regional geographies, as seen in the map above for the NY-NJ-CT metro region, it does little to assuage the harmful impacts of proliferating toxicity at the neighborhood scale — much to the unending frustration of local, often minority-majority and/or low income environmental justice communities.

In the case of Danskammer, neighborhood scale impacts have further been obfuscated by a bureaucratic sleight of hand. While the applicant has followed the letter of the law, the sprit of the law has been egregiously violated.

How has this happened and what are the potential impacts of this obfuscation ?

The following exhibits outline the deficiency:

1. Following the Rules

While the current environmental justice legal framework was established at the federal level in the 1990s via EO 12898, single-source state projects consult with state agencies of record — in this case New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC). Here, the NYSDEC sets guidance to determine potentially vulnerable environmental justice communities (PEJAs) in a screening process. As part of the Danskammer application, an EJ assessment was performed based on the Part 487 criteria Wherein EJ threshold criteria is established:

At least 51.1% of the population in an urban area reported themselves to be members of minority groups; or

At least 33.8% of the population in a rural area reported themselves to be members of minority groups; or

At least 23.59% of the population in an urban or rural area had household incomes below the federal poverty level.

While Danskammer followed NYSDEC guidance, a significant time gap exists: by using 2010 decennial census exclusively for its minority variable determinations, the applicant allowed nearly a decade to pass before its analysis became public in December 2019.

This data gap has disappeared the very population living in closest proximity to the proposed plant. In effect, the applicant has been allowed to typify this most proximate community 10 years in reverse, deeming it ineligible for PEJA status.

2. New York State is not immune from demographic change

Without question, the Hudson Valley region has experienced significant demographic change over the past 10 years. And certainly this is the case in the census geography that literally intersects with the proposed Danskammer project —Census Tract 101.02, Block Group 1 — situated below:

In the following table, the baseline 2010 minority variable used by the applicant is compared to the more contemporary, non-overlapping Census American Community Survey 5-year estimates — 2009–2013 and 2015–2019:

Reading upwards, a significant divergence emerges — a near doubling of the minority portion of population in the very tract in which the Danskammer Plant would be sited. Given this wide disparity, closer analysis is warranted. By comparing ortho imagery taken above the plant dated 2009, followed by 2016, new housing development in the southwestern corner of the tract appears in the intervening years. Its these new households and families that have been disappeared via bureaucratic omission — deemed irrelevant, further consideration unwarranted.

Once seen above, the omission is glaringly obvious in the applicant’s final EJ mapping below:

3. All impacts are not the same

It is not coincidental the applicant’s air modeling is part and parcel of its Environmental Justice analysis chapter: the intersection of vulnerable populations to localized air impacts is arguably the most important health impact consideration of a proposed project. Amongst a list of deleterious impacts — noise and vibrations, property values, elevated catastrophic hazard— its the air impacts that are most determinate of human health.

As stated by the applicant, emission levels would be exceeded across 3 scenarios: Annual PM 2.5, 1-Hour PM 2.5 and 1-Hour NO2.

Known as Significant Impact Levels (SILs), an exceedance here is a red flag, a shorthand allowed to the applicant to disclose a localized impact, while contextualizing it within the green flag of a project’s larger NAAQS compliance. As mapped by the applicant, the brunt of the SIL exceedances would be borne by those communities most proximate to the project, including the disappeared Census Tract 101.02, Block Group 1:

A close reading of the anodyne assertions of the applicant is warranted in light of the now discovered yet disappeared Census Tract 101.02, Block Group 1:

All modeled project impacts, except for 24-hour PM-10/PM-2.5, annual PM-2.5, and 1-hour NO2 impacts are below SILs. The sum of maximum calculated impacts and background levels are below the corresponding NAAQS for all pollutants and averaging periods. Therefore, the Project is not considered to have any adverse air quality impacts within the EJ Areas.

Further along in the chapter:

The maximum modeled Project impacts are generally modeled to occur at or near to the Project fence line or located to the west-northwest of the Project and outside the potential EJ areas. Therefore, the identified EJ Areas will not receive a disproportionately significant and adverse share of the maximum modeled Project impacts on air quality.

But as we now know, not all demonstrably EJ Areas were indeed mapped, and the very one that matters most — the literal Fenceline Community caught up in this project — has been disappeared entirely.

In additional to unleashing a public heath crisis, the year 2020 fully unmasked systemic racial inequities in this country. The compounding, negative impacts of fossil fuel infrastructure upon communities of color is clear. This is why Environmental Justice laws exist. To erase residents most impacted through the omission of their presence in the Danskammer application is nothing short of an environmental injustice.

GIS Analyst & Instructor | Shale Gas Impacts, Environmental Justice & Climate Change Issues