Fear and Reliance: The Ongoing Saga Of Indian Point

It has been a record year for the Indian Point Energy Center, a nuclear power plant 25 miles north of New York City on the banks of the Hudson River. Run by Louisiana-based operator Entergy, the Westchester plant has been a longstanding thorn in the sides of environmentalists and the State. This year, Indian Point has experienced more accidents and temporary shutdowns than it has in almost six years.

Indian Point’s significance is hard to discount. The plant supplies roughly a quarter of New York City’s electricity without emitting any greenhouse gases. But there is a disconcerting lack of consensus regarding the physical safety of the aging plant.

In May, a transformer explosion at Indian Point accidentally led to an inch of flooding in reactor #3’s switchgear room, located in the basement of the reactor’s control building. According to a nuclear safety expert interviewed for this story, five or more inches of water in the switchgear room would disable the electrical system which guarantees that the reactor’s nuclear core remains safely cool.

And if the cooling system’s 8 hours of back-up battery power ran out after the electrical system failed, this would help set the stage for a core meltdown.

Indian Point spokesman Jerry Nappi told us flatly that the electrical equipment in the switchgear room of reactor #3 was never at risk from the inch of flooding after the May 9th fire. But, he noted, “we have taken aggressive steps to ensure it does not occur again.”

Nonetheless, Governor Cuomo renewed his call to permanently shut down the plant. And the benefits the plant provides continue to be weighed against the arguably massive peril it poses both to the environment as well as to the safety of the metro region.

Describing the plant as “inherently problematic” after the transformer fire, Cuomo stated that “you do not have a nuclear plant in as dense a populated area anywhere else on the globe—it’s literally about 20 miles from New York City.”

cuomo indian point
Governor Cuomo speaks to reporters near the main entrance of Indian Point on May 9th after a transformer failed and caused a fire at reactor unit 3. The fire was extinguished and the unit shut down automatically according to the plant’s operator, Entergy. Credit: Associated Press/Craig Ruttle

“If something goes wrong at Indian Point, it goes seriously wrong and it affects a lot of people, so I’m very, very careful when it comes to Indian Point,” the Governor added.

A significant source of power (and jobs)

Indian Point is a key contributor to New York State’s energy requirements. In 2014, the plant’s two reactors produced 12% of the total electricity generated in New York, according to the New York Independent System Operator, which manages the state’s transmission network and wholesale electricity markets.

Owing to their low fuel costs, these reactors run at full capacity through the year, generating more than 2000 MW during the day — enough to power about two million homes.

[As a point of reference, the average amount of electricity used in New York State typically ranges between 17,000 to 19,000 MW in a one hour period. “Peak” usage loads, during heat waves and cold snaps, are significantly higher, ranging from about 29,000 to as much as 35,000 MW over the course of an hour. New York City accounted for roughly a third of the state’s energy usage in 2014.]

For the state to meet power reliability requirements, “replacement resources have to be in place prior to a closure of the Indian Point Energy Center,” said NYISO spokesperson, Ken Klapp. A NYISO report from July this year estimates that, if the plant were to close, at least 500 MW of additional power would have to be produced just to provide adequate energy to southeast New York.

By Entergy’s own estimates, the plant provides about 25% of the electricity supplied to New York City and Westchester County. According to company spokesperson Patricia Kakridas, the plant employs about 1,000 workers, who account for more than $140 million in annual payroll, and it supports more than 9,000 additional jobs across the state. Overall, Indian Point generates $1.6 billion for the state economy, pays another $340 million in local, state and federal taxes and contributes over $1 million in annual charitable contributions.

Nuclear power: a key part of the state’s energy mix

Nuclear power will play an important role in New York for the foreseeable future. In addition to Indian Point, New York has three other nuclear power plants, all located in the western part of the state. Almost a third of the electricity generated in New York State in 2014 came from nuclear power.

At the same time, New York’s energy mix is shifting. The use of coal and oil for power generation continues to decline, and the use of renewables -especially wind and solar- is growing. But so is the state’s use of natural gas, much to the consternation of many environmentalists.

Natural gas, while not renewable, is arguably “cleaner” than coal and relatively affordable. Gas’ role in power generation has increased significantly in the last 15 years. Last year, gas/oil and gas powered plants supplied 41% of the state’s electricity.

Interestingly, the Cuomo administration’s recently released 2015 Energy Plan makes barely any mention of nuclear energy. The Governor, who lives a half-hour from Indian Point, has been a staunch opponent of the plant. Cuomo’s broad vision document lays emphasis on “clean, affordable and renewable” sources of energy, and increased efficiency in transmission and distribution.

“A closer call than anybody would have liked.”

Citizens groups, elected officials and others have raised a wide range of safety concerns about Indian Point over the years. But it is the inch of flooding in reactor unit 3’s switchgear room after May’s transformer explosion that is particularly worrying -and frustrating- to nuclear safety specialist David Lochbaum.

Lochbaum directs a nuclear safety program for the Union of Concerned Scientists, and is about to release a white paper on May’s explosion and flooding. It was “a closer call than anybody would have liked,” he observed.

Lochbaum said that the transformer explosion triggered the release of water from emergency valves. But once released, the water did not drain properly because of clogged floor drains.

Layout of Indian Point Energy Center. Source: Power Authority of the State of New York Preliminary Safety Analysis Report, April 26, 1967

“It keeps being a problem,” Lochbaum added. The plant’s switchgear rooms are vulnerable to flooding from various sources- they house both fire protection and cooling water pipes. Hurricane Irene caused flooding in one of reactor unit 2’s switchgear rooms, which was exacerbated by a clogged drain.

Lochbaum, who worked in the industry for 17 years and trained safety inspectors as a Nuclear Regulatory Commission staff member, points out that flooding in the switchgear rooms at the Daiichi Plant in Fukushima, Japan is what ultimately led to the failure of the plant’s electrical system, the core meltdown of the plant’s three reactors, and a catastrophic radiation release in 2011.

“They [Entergy] keep finding that the floor drains are clogged and partially blocked and not draining as well as they should. They keep identifying ways to better manage that flooding hazard but nothing ever seems to get fixed,” Lochbaum said.

Indian Point spokesman Jerry Nappi challenged Lochbaum’s assertion that the condition of the drains poses a serious threat. He stated that an engineering analysis conducted by Entergy showed that the “drains inside the building housing electrical equipment remove water [released by the sprinkler systems] at a rate quick enough to ensure water will never rise to a level that would impact the electrical equipment. This is the case now as well as the case during the May transformer fire.”

The accident in May led to a visit from a Nuclear Regulatory Commission inspection team. NRC spokeswoman Diane Screnci said that Entergy was taking “appropriate interim and long term actions,” including inspections and clearing drains, to address the drainage problem. The NRC will continue to follow the issue, she said.

Sprinklers are one thing, but what if the switchgear rooms flooded more rapidly, such as in the event of a hurricane?

Screnci said that in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, the NRC initiated a process in which every nuclear power plant in the country reevaluated its risk from flooding. The NRC is working with plants to determine whether they are properly protected, she said. Indian Point is in the middle of this process.

David Lochbaum is not satisfied with the pace of action at Indian Point. The NRC has documented flooding issues at the plant over several years, he said. “The best reason for the failure to address this problem is that they keep having flooding problems about every two years yet they [the problems] don’t lead to dire consequences,” he observed.

In its 2007 re-licensing application, Entergy even considered installing a flood alarm system for the switchgear rooms in both of Indian Point’s reactors, which would alert personnel immediately if there was a problem. This would be a huge step forward, said Lochbaum.

“There’s clearly a hazard,” he stated. Elevating the electrical equipment would be very expensive, Lochbaum explained, and complicated by the fact that the equipment must also be secured against potential earthquakes. “The best way to manage it is to make sure that room doesn’t flood to more than five inches.”

Nappi said that Entergy is still considering installing a flood alarm system, which admittedly could not fully protect against an electrical system failure, but would lower the risk of such an incident. The total cost would be roughly $4 million, said Lochbaum, which he argues is pennies per each area resident who might be affected by a core meltdown.

Assessing the risk posed by Indian Point

A 2011 report, commissioned by Riverkeeper and the Natural Resources Defense Council, attempted to gauge the impact of such a meltdown. It estimated that 5.6 million metro area residents would need to be evacuated or sheltered if just one of Indian Point’s reactors had a core meltdown similar in scale to what occurred in Fukushima.

The resulting radioactive plume, the report said, would put area residents at greater risk of cancer and genetic damage, and could contaminate a swathe of land from Northern Westchester to the George Washington Bridge to uninhabitable levels.

Riverkeeper, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group, has been actively involved in challenging Entergy’s application for renewing its operating licenses. The plant has two operating reactors- unit 2 and unit 3. The license for unit 2 expired in 2013 and unit 3’s license is due to expire in December.

Unit 3 has experienced four unplanned shutdowns so far this year, which is not typical, said Jerry Nappi. Overall reliability at both units has increased significantly over time, he said. Unit 2 has now been online for 568 continuous days.

Nappi maintained that the shutdowns should not be seen as safety issues or accidents. They were caused by various factors, such as equipment or grid connection problems, and are not due to the age of the plant, he stressed. During each shutdown, “equipment operated as designed and control room operators responded as expected,” Nappi added.

Other issues, including May’s transformer explosion (which also caused an oil leak into the Hudson), as well as a breaker failure in June, and spent fuel pools which are near capacity, are more clearly problematic. They all “add up to an unacceptable risk of the biggest disaster that the New York metro area could ever see,” argued Riverkeeper president Paul Gallay.

Is there a broader explanation for the unplanned shutdowns and other recent problems at Indian Point? “The most common thread…seems to be aging,” David Lochbaum observed.

There is a troubling gulf at times between the concerns raised by watchdog groups and numerous elected officials, and the stance of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission- the agency tasked with regulating the nuclear power industry. The NRC has conducted over 33,000 hours of inspections and reviews in the last eight years at Indian Point and deemed it safe for operation. The agency has given the plant its highest safety rating for the last five years.

Gallay cited the various fire safety exemptions granted by the NRC to the plant. (“They have fire safety exemptions that you and I couldn’t get for our home,” he said.)

These exemptions are not plant-wide; rather they apply to specific rooms and areas. Some are granted if the plant operator agrees to find workaround solutions to an issue such as assigning extra manpower in case of a fire. In one instance, despite a requirement that its power cables must be insulated to withstand fire for an hour, Indian Point received an exemption permitting cables that are only insulated against fire for 24 minutes. These exemptions recently became the basis for legal action against the plant.

However, NRC spokesperson Neil Sheehan said such exemptions are not uncommon. “Almost every plant in the country has received some or the other exemption,” he said.

New York State Assembly member Richard Brodsky has appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit to force Indian Point to shutdown or overhaul its safety standards. A group of New York City Council members lent their support to the case last month.

The plant is also at risk from earthquakes. In 2010, the NRC modeled the chances of catastrophic failure due to a seismic event and one of Indian Point’s two reactors, unit 3, was found to be at highest risk in the country compared to any other nuclear plant. Unit 3 has a 1 in 10,000 chance each year of core damage from an earthquake.

The NRC’s model takes two main factors into consideration: the chance of a serious quake, and the strength of design of the plant. David Lochbaum said he believed that Entergy is gradually working to address the earthquake hazard at the plant.

Like the NRC, Entergy insists that the plant is fundamentally secure. “Indian Point is safe and we have a proven commitment to make investments to assure safety,” said spokesperson Patricia Kakridas. According to her, the company has invested more than $1 billion over the last decade on security and safety.

Environmental impact that cuts both ways

Besides safety concerns, Indian Point has a direct environmental impact. The plant draws around 2.4 billion gallons of water from the Hudson River each day to cool its reactors and discharges it at a slightly higher temperature (approximately 8 degrees Fahrenheit according to Riverkeeper). This kills roughly a billion fish larvae and small fish each year and environmentalists have been arguing for temporary shutdowns of the plant to allow local fish populations to breed.

Indian Point’s impact on the Hudson is currently being reviewed in a state hearing administered by judges from the Department of Environmental Conservation.

But there is another way to look at the plant’s environmental impact. “Indian Point plays an important role in New York State’s ability to meet its ambitious environmental goals,” said Entergy spokeswoman Patricia Kakridas, referring to the fact that the plant does not emit any greenhouse gases. Both New York State and City plan to slash carbon emissions 80% by 2050.

Kakridas cited a 2011 study commissioned by the New York City Department of Environmental Protection which found that carbon emissions in the state would rise as much as 15% if Indian Point went offline because the cheapest replacement option would be gas-fired power plants. The study also modelled a much more expensive low-carbon replacement option for the plant, which would include a new direct transmission line into New York City and an offshore wind farm in Brooklyn.

What if there was no Indian Point?

There is ongoing debate about how -and when- the energy supplied by Indian Point could be replaced, and what the true impact on consumers would be.

The state’s Independent System Operator has a matrix of power sources which it draws upon every day- based on availability and price. The greatest proportion -over half- of available capacity comes from gas and oil powered plants. At least in the immediate, those plants would most likely be used more if Indian Point were to close.

The Ravenswood Generating Station, a 2,480 MW power plant in Long Island City, Queens. The plant uses natural gas, fuel oil and kerosene to power its boilers. Credit: RSGUSKIND

Indeed, the 2011 analysis conducted for the City found that residents would likely experience significant cost increases, more air pollution and less fundamental reliability in the event of a closure.

Power reliability is not something New Yorkers usually have to think about. Indian Point spokesman Jerry Nappi maintained that nuclear power’s capability to continuously generate electricity “exceed[s] by far those of any other source of power generation.”

New York’s electrical grid would face shortages during peak load conditions if Indian Point closed today- 500 more MW are needed for southeast New York alone, says NYISO. Their analysis takes a contingency plan into account which would create three transmission projects specifically for southeast New York and goes into effect in summer 2016.

New York’s electrical grid would face shortages during peak load conditions if Indian Point closed today- 500 more MW are needed for southeast New York alone, says NYISO. Their analysis takes a contingency plan into account which would create three transmission projects specifically for southeast New York and goes into effect in summer 2016.

“This deficiency would grow with peak load growth over time,” NYISO spokesman Ken Klapp told us.

Renewable sources of energy that are coming on-line now will help, Klapp stated, but “would not be enough to make up the shortfall.” Energy efficiency and better load management could potentially absorb about 125 MW of the shortfall created by Indian Point’s closure, Klapp said.

But conditions are constantly changing. The Cuomo administration is in the midst of restructuring how New York’s energy market functions, a process which is partially aimed at greatly increasing the use of renewables.

Klapp also noted that a new combined cycle (gas and steam) 650-700 MW power plant is to be constructed in Wawayanda, NY. NYISO is examining how much of an impact the plant could have on southeast New York’s power needs. It is expected to be operational by 2018.

And other research may show a clearer path away from Indian Point.

A study commissioned by the NRDC and Riverkeeper in 2011 also examined energy alternatives to Indian Point, such as greater energy efficiency, expanded renewable sources like solar and wind, new transmission lines and upgraded existing power plants. It reported that the extra cost to consumers -if Indian Point were closed- would be negligible, between $1 and $5 per month.

The London Array. Its 175 wind turbines power nearly half a million UK homes. A similar project -almost 200 3.6 MW turbines- has been proposed for a site 13 miles off the coast of the Rockaways. Wind power is growing in New York State.

That study -contrary to the report commissioned by the City- found that New York State has ample reserves to meet any downfall in energy supply from a closure of Indian Point, noted Paul Gallay. He said electricity costs would remain stable and even go down as it would force increased conservation and efficiency measures to be put in place.

“The sooner we move from a 40-year-old aging, unsafe nuclear plant 30 miles from downtown Manhattan, to safer, more sustainable sources of energy, the safer and more better off we’ll be,” Gallay argued.

And on this point, Gallay has the support of the Governor.

A long -and uncertain- relicensing process

Entergy began the process to renew their licenses on both reactors back in April 2007. But that process has since been opposed and delayed at almost every turn.

Currently, the application is going through hearings where stakeholders who have filed contentions against the renewal of Entergy’s licenses will be able to testify. The next hearing is in November and the process will “certainly go into next year,” said NRC’s Sheehan. “We don’t have any definite timeframe for it to be completed,” he added, emphasizing that Indian Point has seen a significantly longer relicensing process than any other nuclear power plant in the country.

NRC staff issued two different reports on Indian Point as part of the relicensing process: a safety review in 2009 and an environmental review in 2010. But the NRC continues to file supplements to these reports, with new information, each year.

With each supplementary report, parties opposed to the renewal are allowed to submit new contentions. A bulk of the contentions were filed early in the renewal process with most coming from the Cuomo administration. Only after the hearings are concluded can the five-member NRC give its final decision.

Complicating Entergy’s efforts further are two permits they have to obtain from the State government – a water discharge permit and a Certification of Consistency with the Coastal Zone Management Plan for the Hudson River. The second is currently being litigated in court after a judge ruled that the plant was exempt from the Coastal Zone Management Plan and the State appealed the decision.

Another case went against Entergy in July when an appellate court upheld the State’s efforts in 2012 to expand protected wildlife habitat areas to parts of the Hudson that run along Indian Point.

A speedy conclusion is unlikely. Because Entergy submitted its relicensing applications before the licenses for both reactors expire, federal law allows them to continue to operate the plant until the NRC reaches a final decision.

As this process grinds on, it remains to be seen how far and how quickly the Governor can take the state’s energy supply in a different direction, and create viable alternatives. Federal approval process notwithstanding, Indian Point may very well fall prey to his greener, cleaner, safer vision for New York.




Is NYC’s Bag Bill a Tax or a Way to Shrink Waste?

Last year, New York became the latest city to consider a fee on plastic bags to reduce waste and encourage more environmentally friendly options. The plastic bag bill, introduced in the City Council in March 2014, has become a contentious issue. Advocates argue the bill will reduce plastic bags in the city’s waste stream. Opponents worry it could be an additional burden on low-income New Yorkers and that the bill is an over-reaching attempt to solve a relatively small problem.

The legislation, sponsored by Council members Brad Lander and Margaret Chin, would introduce a 10-cent fee on both plastic and paper bags usually handed out at grocery stores, incentivizing customers to switch to reusable bags. Currently, the bill is five sponsors short of a 26-member majority. Another 13 sponsors would make it veto-proof.

The bill’s supporters are pushing the Mayor and City Council to pass it by April 22, Earth Day.

New Yorkers use 5.2 billion carryout bags per year, the majority of which are not recycled, says Bag It NYC. The city pays an estimated $10 million to transport 100,000 tons of plastic bags to landfills in other states each year.

But Republican members of the Council and even some moderate Democrats have taken umbrage with what they call another ‘tax’ by the city, which would disproportionately affect low-income families and the elderly. There is greater opposition to the bill among Council members from the outer boroughs.

A Regressive Tax?

Opponents of the plastic bag bill argue that it will be an additional financial burden to the city’s most vulnerable communities, that recycling is an efficient alternative, and that reusable grocery bags can lead to the spread of bacteria and disease.

Council member David Greenfield has been vocal about his opposition to the bill. “It’s a regressive tax,” he said in a phone interview. “It’s taxing the people who can least afford it.”

Stressing that New Yorkers tend to shop for groceries in bulk, and that middle- and low-income families cannot afford to shop online, Greenfield said his concerns are pragmatic. “It’s a practical problem. No one’s going to carry 30-40 reusable bags to the grocery store. Ten cents a bag is then $4 each week, which is $200 in 50 weeks,” he said.

The flipside of the argument is that the bill has certain exemptions. Council member Antonio Reynoso, who chairs the Committee on Sanitation and Solid Waste Management, has come out strongly in support of the proposal. “Some people say that the proposed plastic bag fee will be a burden on low-income communities, but this is simply not the case,” he emailed.

“SNAP [food stamp] and WIC recipients are exempt from the fee, and the bill ensures that citywide efforts will be made to give out reusable bags, especially to low-income people. Remembering to bring reusable bags is easy once you get used to doing it—my mother brings hers when she goes shopping now, and other people can learn to do it, too,” continued Reynoso.

“These bags are a burden on our environment, and they are particularly bad for our city’s recycling facilities. This will be a small change that will make a big difference,” Reynoso argued.

Greenfield brushed these caveats aside, calling the bill “overly-broad” for also targeting paper bags, which he says are easily recyclable. He also maintained that many low-income families either don’t qualify for food stamps or don’t want to apply for them, including undocumented immigrants. “It doesn’t really solve the problem,” Greenfield said, surprised that progressive council members are on board.

The American Progressive Bag Alliance (APBA) and the Bag the Ban campaign have strongly opposed the attempt by the City Council to regulate and reduce plastic bag usage. APBA is a part of the Society of the Plastics Industry, the trade association for the plastics industry, and Bag the Ban is run by plastic-bag manufacturer NOVOLEX.

Under the proposed bill, disposable plastic bags would come with a 10-cent fee. Photo credit: PlasticFreeTuesday.com


At a November 2014 City Council Sanitation Committee hearing on the bill, APBA chairman Mark Daniels argued that plastic bags are a negligible part of the city’s waste stream and that a fee would have minimal impact on litter while pushing people towards less-environmentally friendly alternatives, such as reusable bags made of heavy-duty plastic.

“The current legislation will not help the environment. It will turn shoppers toward inferior options and has the potential to cause economic harm to thousands of families,” Daniels said in his testimony before the Sanitation Committee.

“People who are doing the estimates of the cost believe that the total cost won’t be meaningful but who’s to judge what’s meaningful and not meaningful?”- Council Member Helen Rosenthal

Calls to the American Progressive Bag Alliance went unanswered.

Activist Bertha Lewis, founder and president of The Black Institute, also spoke out against the bill, first at the November hearing, and then in an op-ed for the Gotham Gazette. But it later emerged that a group founded by Lewis, the Black Leadership Action Coalition, had received payments from the APBA. Lewis denied that the payments had any bearing on her views towards the plastic bag bill.

Environmental Justice Advocates Support Bag Bill

Environmental justice groups representing the city’s low-income communities and communities of color have in fact come out in support of the bill. “They know it’s not only good for the environment and for cleaner neighborhoods, but also an important step towards reducing environmental burdens placed on low income neighborhoods, and making them more equitable,” Council member Brad Lander emailed.

(Seventy percent of the city’s daily trash volume is typically processed for long-distance shipment in just three neighborhoods: the South Bronx, North Brooklyn and Southeast Queens.)

The New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, WE ACT for Environmental Justice, and Sustainable South Bronx are just a few of the groups that believe a fee on plastic bags would be beneficial, particularly since the bill also provides for outreach and distribution of reusable bags focused on low-income neighborhoods.

Citizens Committee of New York City, a non-profit that is part of Bag it NYC, a coalition of organizations supporting the bag fee, has handed out nearly 4,000 reusable canvas bags at public events over the last year. Last month, Bag it NYC held a rally at City Hall to push for the bill’s passage.

Council Member Brad Lander speaks at a rally in favor of the Plastic Bag bill. Photo credit: Plasticbaglaws.org.

Saleen Shah, director of communications for the Citizens Committee, says the plastic bag bill is reasonable, practical legislation. “A 10-cent charge is not onerous,” he said. “All we’re asking for is a charge to incentivize people to bring reusable bags to the store.”

Calling the fee a “kind of tough love,” Shah said that issues of environmental degradation, in fact, disproportionately impact communities of color and low-income communities. He also believes that immigrant communities see the merits of the bill and that exemptions within it are sufficient to protect the most vulnerable residents.

Criticizing Governor Cuomo for channeling $41 million out of the climate change mitigation fund to the state’s general fund, Shah said, “We’re looking at little victories, small, practical, common sense victories, that can get us on par with the West Coast.”

West Side Seniors Speak Up

At a senior forum organized by Council member Helen Rosenthal’s office last Monday, Citizens Committee provided reusable bags to attendees. Rosenthal, who represents the West side of Manhattan, supports the bill but did express concern about how it would affect low-income neighborhoods and seniors in particular.

bag giveaway
Reusable bag giveaway event for Manhattan senior citizens. Photo credit: Samar Khurshid

“People who are doing the estimates of the cost believe that the total cost won’t be meaningful but who’s to judge what’s meaningful and not meaningful?” Rosenthal asked. “The idea is to reduce usage, encourage the reusable bags. I do think change is hard and it’ll take a period of time to get used to it but I do think people will get used to it. I think the 10-cent fee will help change behavior and that’s the goal.”

“What on earth is taking us so long to pass it? Some of the council members’ objections at the hearing were that their constituents wouldn’t have reusable bags when they went shopping. I say to them, ‘Your constituents are not as stupid as you think they are.'”

The people at the forum seemed to agree. “I think anything for the environment is necessary even if it’s a little inconvenient and hard to get used to,” said Stuart Lahn, 74, a volunteer at a senior center. “It’s something I can live with. It’s more important to protect the environment than to have the convenience of plastic bags. I’ll just have to get used to better habits.”

Retired business analyst Suzanne Urich, 70, had even attended last November’s plastic bag hearing. “What on earth is taking us so long to pass it? Some of the council members’ objections at the hearing were that their constituents wouldn’t have reusable bags when they went shopping. I say to them, ‘Your constituents are not as stupid as you think they are,’” she said.

Far Cry From The West Coast

New York indeed lags behind other cities in curbing plastic bag usage.

Los Angeles County banned all single-use plastic bags in November 2010 and imposed a 10-cent fee on recyclable paper bags. By 2012, according to a Los Angeles County Department of Public Works report, there was a 94 percent reduction in the use of single-use bags—all plastic bags were eliminated and paper bag usage dropped by 25 percent.

Moreover, the reported financial impact per resident was a mere $4 for the year (below L.A. County’s initial expectations of $5.72).

More than 130 municipalities have passed similar legislation in recent years, imposing some form of bag fee or an outright ban. Among larger cities, San Francisco banned single-use plastic bags in 2007 for supermarkets and pharmacies.

San Francisco extended the ban in 2012 to apply to all retail and food establishments, and also established a 10-cent fee for check-out bags. These check-out bags must meet certain criteria and are limited to compostable plastic bags, recycled paper bags, and reusable bags.

Seattle banned plastic bags in 2012. In Washington D.C., a five-cent tax was imposed in 2009, and Portland, Maine’s 5-cent fee just went into effect this April 15.

Jennie Romer, attorney and founder of plasticbaglaws.org, has worked with many states and cities over the last six years to craft laws on plastic bags. “In New York City, the point is to have people bring their own bags,” she said. “It’s [the fee] a disincentive. Across the country, people are bringing their own bags or refusing plastic bags if they only have a few items. There’s a huge behavior change.”

Romer insists that people adapt quickly to plastic bag laws and that 137 municipalities with different demographics have seen similar results.

Washington DC’s law is likely the closest parallel to the proposed legislation in New York City.
It imposes a tax on all carryout bags, rather than a ban, and the District Department of Environment (DDOE) hands out thousands of reusable bags every year, particularly to low-income and senior communities.

The DDOE commissioned surveys in 2010 and 2013 to gauge the effects and perception of their plastic bag law. The 2013 survey, conducted by OpinionWorks, found that 83 percent of residents and 90 percent of businesses said they either supported the bag fee or had no strong feelings about it. Eight out of ten residents said they had reduced their use of disposable bags because of the fee.

DC city officials argue that the legislation has been successful across all of Washington’s income groups.

In the 2013 survey, 80 percent of residents in the District’s most financially disadvantaged ward supported or had no strong feelings about the law. This number seems to call into question what Romer calls the “narrative created by the plastic bag industry all over the country” that a fee disproportionately impacts lower income communities. “It’s offensive,” she said, for them to think that people with less money cannot be concerned about the environment.

Romer also argued that low-income residents are actually hit harder by the cost of bags embedded in the price of food and local taxes for cleaning up litter.

“I know it [a bag fee] works,” said retiree Ellen Durant, 81, after Council member Rosenthal’s forum last week. “My children and grandchildren live in California and I’ve seen it work first hand.”

Durant was reluctant about her support for the bill, even though she understands the logic behind it. “I don’t like it but I know it’s important. I think people don’t want to spend 10 cents.” But she conceded, “I guess I’ll bring a reusable bag with me so I don’t have to pay.”


Samar Khurshid is a freelance journalist living in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. He recently graduated with a Master’s degree from New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, and mainly covers politics for the Gotham Gazette. Khurshid grew up in New Delhi, India and worked for the Hindustan Times, a national newspaper, for two years before moving to New York. Khurshid’s last article for New York Environment Report was Coastal Communities Risk Being Swept Away by Rising Insurance Costs.

Coastal Communities Risk Being Swept Away by Rising Insurance Costs

New Yorkers were exposed to the harsh realities of climate change when Superstorm Sandy hit more than two years ago. Those living in coastal neighborhoods like Coney Island and the Rockaways are struggling to deal with the mounting impacts of climate change. But now it’s not just the storms they fear, it’s the rising cost of flood insurance that threatens to drown them.

Come next year, revised flood zone maps issued by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) go into effect, expanding the amount of land considered at high-risk of flooding. The new maps will include roughly 60,000 more buildings, according to an analysis by the City Comptroller’s office. The city’s high-risk flood zones will soon be home to 400,457 New Yorkers, an increase of 84% from the current 218,088.

The projected increase in flood insurance premiums is significant. For a typical home in the high-risk zones, insurance premiums could increase from around $1,000 in 2014 to nearly $14,500 by 2030.

Flood zones have expanded in every borough. The increase is particularly dramatic along the eastern and western edges of Staten Island, and in South Brooklyn and South Queens.

Street in the Rockaways in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

 Looming Affordability Crisis

The central concern, shared by City and federal officials, community representatives and most importantly, residents, is the looming insurance affordability crisis. The future of low and middle-income communities in coastal areas throughout the city is now in question.

The effect of the projected insurance rate increases on homeowners will be “devastating,” said Jonathan Gaska, district manager of Queens Community Board 14, which covers the Rockaways. “People are forced to make a decision to either raise their homes at an exorbitant price or paying a phenomenal amount of money for insurance,” he said. While he believes the City is trying to help the locals stuck, he added, “The proof will be in the pudding.”

Over one-third of homeowners in the City’s high-risk zones have an annual household income of less than $75,000, reports the Center for New York City Neighborhoods, a non-profit working for affordable housing for New Yorkers.

The owners of multi-family buildings in the zones are also vulnerable. Two-thirds of tenants have a household annual income of less than $75,000.

“I’m really worried we’re going to destroy the fabric of these communities,” said City Council member Donovan Richards, a Democrat who represents the Rockaways. The Rockaways already have the third highest notice of foreclosure rate of any community in New York City’s high-risk flood zones.

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Housing at water’s edge in the Rockaways. Photo: Samar Khurshid

Calling housing foreclosures a “silent killer” of the community, Richards said, “It’s a mixed community. As someone who lived there, in Ocean Village, paying $860 for a two-bedroom that overlooked the beach, I’m fighting to ensure that these people are protected. I want everyday people to be able to have a beautiful view without being billionaires,” he said.

Rising waters and rising insurance

Homeowners in the city’s greatly expanded high-risk zones will be required to purchase flood insurance (either through the National Flood Insurance Program administered by FEMA or through private insurance providers) if they meet certain federal criteria. For instance, if they have received FEMA assistance in the past, if they have a federally-backed mortgage, if they received a Small Business Administration Disaster Loan or if they are registered with the City’s Build It Back Sandy-recovery program.

For those already on insurance plans, their rates are set to increase owing to legislative changes in the last three years.

Almost two-thirds of the owner-occupied housing units in the high-risk zones have mortgages, says the CNYCN. Homeowners with mortgages who refuse to purchase insurance are usually subject to force-placed insurance where their lender purchases a policy and passes the cost on to them. Those who cannot pay have little choice but to sell their homes.

Why are insurance rates going up? Federal legislation, the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2012, has reduced government subsidies on insurance in order to make the NFIP financially viable.

“I’ve lived here a little over fifteen years but if the rates went up, I’d move out of state,” said Rockaway Park homeowner Paul Fitzgerald, 56, a retired Fire Department Captain who lives in a single-family home with his wife. “The taxes are already killing me. I’d move to a Red state. Costs are going higher and higher here and it’s very difficult to get by.” Fitzgerald has heard rumors of the insurance rate premiums increasing, but so far he has no clarity on how much he may have to pay. He currently pays around $2,000 a year.

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Paul Fitzgerald in front of his home in Rockaway Park. Photo: Samar Khurshid

The Rockaways are home to many retirees like Fitzgerald and his wife. Living on a fixed income, they’d be among the hardest hit. According to the City, 22 percent of housing units on the Rockaway Peninsula are occupied by senior citizens, aged 65 and older. Almost forty percent of the peninsula’s population receives some form of government “income support” such as cash assistance, Supplemental Security Income, or Medicaid.

Conciliatory efforts may be in vain

Congress has made attempts to limit the impact of the rate hikes through the Homeowner Flood Insurance Affordability Act of 2014. Applied retroactively, it repealed certain provisions of Biggert-Waters and lowered rate increases that went into effect after July 2012, while preventing future increases in some cases. Many policy-holders who had their rates go up were provided refunds. The Act also set aside resources for an affordability study to be conducted by the National Academy of Sciences and required FEMA to appoint a Flood Insurance Advocate who would push for fair treatment of NFIP holders.

Most importantly, the Act provided that future rate increases would be gradual for those with currently subsidized rates under the NFIP, with no more than an 18 percent hike each year until a full-risk policy is paid.

Even with these controls, flood insurance rates will rise significantly. For a typical home, granted an 18 percent annual increase and no future changes in federal law, insurance premiums could increase from around $1,000 in 2014 to nearly $14,500 by 2030. For properties newly mapped into high-risk zones, lower premiums will apply with the same rate of increase.

[Flood insurance rates for commercial properties are not covered by the 2014 Affordability Act and still fall under earlier policies. This spells trouble for small businesses.]

Homeowners could face even higher rates -paying nearly $10,000 a year- if their home elevation is significantly lower than federal requirements. Either that or bear the brunt of elevating their houses for a massive one-time investment.

According to estimates, elevating a single-family home can cost anywhere between $10,000 and $100,000. (Some homes are simply not suitable for elevation. In these cases, homeowners can build an extra floor and convert the bottom story into a non-living space.)

Insurance rates for homes in the city’s high-risk zones are calculated on the basis of Base Flood Elevation (BFE), the level to which water is expected to rise in the case of a “100-year flood” which has a one percent chance of being equal or exceeded each year. It is the national standard for the NFIP.

For a home that is 4 feet below BFE, for example, the estimated annual premium is $9,500. Homes in high-risk areas built after 1983, the year when federal flood maps were first adopted, are required to obtain elevation certificates for their insurance policies. An elevation certificate helps determine insurance rates by determining the BFE of a home. Homes built before 1983 do not require elevation certificates.

FEMA Maps Don’t Take Climate Change Into Account

The key aspect of planning for future disasters is understanding -and incorporating- the long-term impacts of climate change. A recent report by the New York City Panel on Climate Change projects that sea levels could rise as much as two feet by 2050. Many parts of the city, with its 520-mile coastline, could be partially if not completely submerged, which is of particular concern in the peninsular Rockaways.

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Housing at water’s edge in the Rockaways. Photo: Samar Khurshid

FEMA’s new flood maps don’t account for this, but the City’s building codes were revised after Superstorm Sandy to set a higher home elevation (at least 2 feet higher than BFE in most cases) for flood damage repair and new construction.

This apparent policy gap doesn’t go unrecognized. “Federal agencies could use [the climate panel’s projections] in any future projects,” said Andrew Martin, mitigation spokesperson for FEMA Region II. “At some point, in the future, there’s a chance that they could be [incorporated into FEMA flood maps] but I couldn’t say when with certainty.”

But he conceded that, “FEMA recognizes that sea level rise and climate change exists and we’re just trying to figure out how to address that.” According to Martin, FEMA is conducting pilot studies in San Francisco, Puerto Rico and Florida to examine “future conditioning” for climate change, but these are not expected to be completed until late 2016.

Maintaining Affordability While Planning for Climate Change

Donovan Richards, in his role as chair of the Council’s Committee on Environmental Protection, agrees that the problem is far bigger than insurance rates. Climate change needs to be addressed at a larger level to tackle long-term issues such as sea level rise, he says.

Mayor de Blasio started the Office of Recovery and Resiliency (ORR) in March last year for that very purpose: creating sustainable, resilient infrastructure while maintaining and protecting communities. And coastal affordability is a key priority of the Mayor’s affordable housing plan, Housing New York.

But neither the City nor federal agencies can completely protect people from insurance rate hikes. They can simply mitigate the effects. “We work closely with the ORR on outreach, meeting with elected representatives like Council members, those from Congress, Committee leaders to explain the changes in the new flood maps,” said FEMA’s Martin.

The de Blasio administration is also advocating for reduced insurance premiums for residents unable to elevate their homes or even buyouts for those without any options. Unfortunately, buyouts, made with federal disaster relief funds, require State approval.

A possible solution would be partial credit for partial mitigation, whereby homeowners could receive more accurately priced insurance rates by partially reducing the scope of possible flood damage. For instance, flood-proofing basements, elevating or reinforcing mechanical equipment, storing valuables in the attic, and securing propane tanks and other possible debris.

Living With Uncertainty

Uncertainty about future premiums, policies and procedures is a large part of the struggle for homeowners.

Richie Binder, 55, a retired ferry pilot, lives in Belle Harbor, Rockaway with his wife and two children. His wife runs a small business in the area. But they don’t have flood insurance on either property. “It’s a joke to have it,” says Binder. “The way they pay you is such a slow process.”

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Richie Binder of Belle Harbor, Rockaway. Photo: Samar Khurshid

Binder’s home is on a higher part of the peninsula so eight months before Sandy hit, FEMA officials told him he wasn’t in the flood zone, he said. But his basement flooded and he was eventually granted federal funds. “They nickel-and-dime everything,” he said, frustrated with the red tape involved and the prospect of having to pay an insurance premium that he won’t be able to afford. “It doesn’t work out for the poor slob that owns a house,” he said.

The situation in the Rockaways is analogous across the city’s coastal communities.

In Coney Island, Brooklyn, 48-year-old Lucia Acevedo dreads the day she receives her insurance papers. “I’m afraid just opening the envelope,” she said, breathing a sigh of relief that her premium only rose $20 this year. But her anxiety about next year is not abated. “If they do raise rates, I’ll have to sell my house and I’ll lose value on it,” she said.

Acevedo lives with her two daughters and grandson in the fifth house on an attached 13-house strip, leaving her with limited options. She can’t afford to raise the house, which in itself is a complicated proposition considering the attached homes. Having heard nothing from the City about how much she might have to pay in the future, she added, “I don’t have the answer, and no one’s given me the answers.”

Who has the answers?

The focus now for the City, even as they work on possible mitigation solutions, needs to be outreach and education. Earlier this month, Council Member Richards and the Center for New York City Neighborhoods (CNYCN) hosted Rockaway and Rosedale residents to inform them about the changes in insurance rates.

“We’re focused on making sure people know and do enough to help them deal with this enormous challenge,” said Matthew Hassett, director of policy and communications for CNYCN. “The biggest thing is they should know whether they’re in a flood zone or not,” he said.

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The Rockaway coastline. Photo: Samar Khurshid

CNYCN released a report last September focused on the issue of housing affordability in flood zones and the long-term effects of climate change. They also launched FloodHelpNY, an online portal to educate the public on the insurance rates hike.

To its credit, the Mayor’s office has also taken steps in this direction. In May 2014, the City announced two affordability studies for both 1-4 family homes and multifamily homes. They pushed for federal flood insurance reform, which was ultimately successful. “We will also soon be launching a consumer education campaign on flood risks, maps, and insurance,” said Amy Spitalnick from the Office of Management and Budget in an emailed statement.

“I think the City is looking at the effects not only in the next five years but the next 50 years,” said CNYCN’s Hassett. “The City is doing its best in a tough situation.”


Samar Khurshid is a freelance journalist living in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. He recently graduated with a Master’s degree from New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, and mainly covers politics for the Gotham Gazette. Khurshid grew up in New Delhi, India. He worked for the Hindustan Times, a national newspaper, for two years before moving to New York. This is Khurshid’s first story for New York Environment Report.