Candidates join protesters in march for greener New York

Legislative Gazette photo by Jeffrey Trotter
Cynthia Nixon, who is challenging the governor in this year’s Democratic primary, marches with environmental groups outside the Capitol last week.

Two gubernatorial hopefuls marched with more than 1,000 climate change protesters to call on the Cuomo administration to implement more environmentally friendly policies, starting with a new microgrid project that powers, heats and cools the Empire State Plaza.

Called the “Walk the Talk on Climate,” the event was the latest — and largest — in a series of attempts to push the governor to adopt greener environmental policies for New York state. According to the rally’s organizers, the walk had three distinct goals: Stop all infrastructure projects that rely on fracked gas from out of state, move to 100 percent renewable energy and make corporate polluters pay.

Attendees at the rally included Howie Hawkins, the Green Party’s nominee for governor, and “Sex and the City” star Cynthia Nixon who is looking to challenge Cuomo in the Democratic primary in September.

Both Hawkins and Nixon champion environmental policies that echo the three goals of the rally, though only Hawkins spoke, citing the seriousness of climate change.

“If we don’t rapidly transition off of fossil fuels, the resulting climate catastrophe means mass extinctions, the collapse of ocean and land ecosystems, and flooding of the world’s cities and bread-basket deltas,” Hawkins said.

Also representing the Green Party at the march were Co-Chaur Gloria Matter and Mark Dunlea, a GPNY organizer and member of the party’s state committee.

On Nixon’s campaign site, her “clean energy economy and climate justice” platform includes transitioning to 100 percent renewable energy, rejecting new fossil fuel infrastructure projects and holding corporate polluters accountable by making them pay reparations for the damage they have done to people and communities.

Although New York state under Cuomo has taken important steps becoming more environmentally friendly — banning fracking in the state in 2014 and mandating that 50 percent of the state’s electricity needs come from renewable sources by 2050 — more action is being demanded from groups that see other environmental policies as one step forward and two steps back.

Legislative Gazette photo by Jeffrey Trotter

The rally filled the Sheridan Hollow neighborhood with protesters brandishing signs calling for 100 percent clean energy and an end to all use of natural gas in New York state, which opponents say will likely be sourced in part from natural gas derived from hydrofracking.

Crowds of people filled the sidewalks in front of the Sheridan Hollow steam plant, the latest focus of environmentalists’ ire. While some protesters chanted, others played music and sang songs about preserving the Earth. However, all attention was given to the flatbed piled with bales of hay from where the organizers spoke.

“Real climate leaders don’t allow a massive buildout of fracked gas pipelines, power plants and compressor stations that shackle New York to decades more of fossil fuels while contaminating the communities where they are built,” said Laura Schindell, the New York organizer for Food and Water Watch.

Sheridan Hollow, protesters say, is one of those contaminated communities. New York Power Authority’s proposed combined heat and power microgrid project would be placed in the neighborhood, a mostly minority community just a few blocks from the state Capitol.

This new cogeneration facility will involve a repurposing of another nearby facility, close to the current Sheridan Hollow steam plant, and would power the plaza, along with its heating and cooling systems. According to information published by NYPA, the new facility “would allow for on-site power generation from clean-burning natural gas-fired turbines, providing 90 percent of the power needed to operate the Plaza.”

The site has previously been the location of other power plants and at one point trash burning facility, all of which have since closed. The proposed facility being planned by NYPA would burn natural gas sourced from out of state via a pipeline. How the gas will be harvested is still unknown.

According to NYPA representative Susan Craig, the proposal “is evolving,” and could change to include more environmentally friendly means of powering the Empire State Plaza and its heating and cooling systems.

“However,” said Craig, “We have to be realistic about what to do with state dollars.”

Creating the facilities necessary for 100 percent renewable energy use would entail what Craig describes as “landscape changing.”

According to a project summary published by NYPA, utilizing solar energy to power the entirety of Empire State Plaza would require more rooftop space than is available in the whole city of Albany. Wind turbines are also not a viable option because of space constraints and the city’s location in the Hudson River Valley. Similarly, using geothermal energy — as the environmental groups are asking — would be nearly impossible to do, because the plaza’s air handling and water piping systems are inadequate to handle a geothermal system, and the fact that the Hudson River is too cold to use as a heat source in winter months.

Despite NYPA’s best intentions to reduce emissions at the Sheridan Ave. plant, for those who marched in last week’s rally, any amount of burned natural gas is too much.

Albany County Legislator Merton Simpson, a longtime resident of Sheridan Hollow and the co-chair of the Sheridan Hollow Alliance for Renewable Energy, said during the protest that the current Sheridan Hollow power plant and its predecessors in the small neighborhood have already had irreversible effects on its inhabitants.

“I live about four blocks from [the Sheridan Hollow steam plant],” said Simpson.“And I have reason to believe that people in my family died from cancer from exposure to this plant.”

After the rally, more than 1,000 protesters representing more than 100 different environmental organizations marched through the streets of downtown Albany to West Capitol Park, during which the streets were filled with the sounds of chants and live music played by a band leading the march.

Legislative Gazette photo by Jeffrey Trotter

Although most of the chants were inspired by social empowerment — as People United for Sustainable Housing (PUSH) Buffalo asked rhetorically “Whose streets? Our streets!” over the course of the march — other chants were directed directly at Cuomo.

“Hey-o Cuomo, walk the talk!” was the rallying cry of the event.

While the event centered itself around a push for more environmentally friendly policies in New York state, participants pleaded with the governor to be more directly involved in making changes himself.

After rallying at the West Capitol Park, demonstrators made their way into the Capitol to the Million Dollar Staircase and the front of the Governor’s Office. Once there, demonstrators participated in a sit-in where they discussed how worsening climate conditions had adversely affected their lives. According to Tripp Eggert, one of the rally organizers, this led to the arrest of 55 people on counts of disorderly conduct.