When the owner of English Station, an abandoned island power plant that looms over Fair Haven, pumped 4,300 gallons of oil from its site and sent it off to be recycled, it hoped to bring in much-needed revenues.
What it brought instead was renewed scrutiny of the plant at 510 Grand Ave. that once burned oil and coal for United Illuminating and has been out of operation for nearly 20 years. Meanwhile, a new plan to demolish the plant is now on hold.
In the oil the English Station’s owner, Asnat Realty LLC, sought to recycle were high concentrations of PCBs, extremely toxic chemicals that are classified as a persistent organic pollutant.
The company that received the contaminated oil refused to accept it. And the Madison-based company that had pumped the oil from eight transformers at English Station and loaded it into one of its trucks, alerted the state Department of Environmental Protection on Jan. 20.
To regulators, the episode signaled that it needs to pay more attention to the site that sits in the middle of Mill River just off busy Grand Avenue. The company’s salvage operations could be releasing even more hazardous material on the site.
To environmentalists and preservationists the government documents that laid out the attempted shipment of contaminated oil, as well as concerns about asbestos removal and vandalism, provided an opportunity to once again shine a spotlight on the long troubled site.
Meanwhile, a supposed plan by the station’s new owner to breathe new life into the problematic site was again dead in the dirty water, for now.
Both the regulators’ and the activists’ renewed interest in English Station were on display this week.
Wednesday morning, representatives of the state and city Departments of Public Health, the newly named Department of Energy & Environmental Protection (DEEP), and the federal Environmental Protection Agency met with contractors hired by Asnat Realty to decide on a program of asbestos removal from the power plant.
In the afternoon, representatives of the New Haven Urban Design League, New Haven Environmental Justice Network, and the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation, held a press conference. They demanded that state and local officials secure the plant, investigate possible illegal activities, inspect the site for health hazards and structural problems, and delay any possible demolition of the plant.
The regulators’ deal seemed to be short lived. By Thursday afternoon, the agreement with Grant Mackay Co., a Utah-based demolition company hired to remove asbestos and demolish the site, had fallen apart when it became clear that the company might not get permission to dismantle the plant quickly. By nightfall, the parties had agreed to meet next week to try to work out their problems.
Still, Wednesday’s dual and dueling events indicate that regulators and citizens are newly committed to keeping an eye on the site. “We and the state and federal agencies will be looking at this very closely to make sure the rules are followed,” Robert Smuts, a city spokesman said.
Smuts said it’s up to state regulators to deal with those potential environmental and health hazards, but “we know It’s on our back if they don’t respond; we’re going to be the ones most affected.”
He said the city has three priorities: “First and foremost to make sure there is no active health or other public safety issue with the site, Two, making sure there isn’t a mess an LLC [limited liability corporation] goes off and walks away from, leaving the city with a million dollar price tag. Third, finding a productive reuse of the property.”
Smuts said the city is “actively making sure the right people are paying attention to these concerns.”
That could lead to more stalemate. Asnat Realty wants to demolish the plant whether to redevelop it for an industrial purpose, as company official Uri Kaufman told the New Haven Register Wednesday, or to reduce its tax exposure by paying for empty land rather than a building, as activists suspect. Kaufman didn’t respond to messages seeking comment.
Given the asbestos and PCBs on the property, demolition is a complicated and costly process that runs the risk of releasing more hazardous materials. It might be that doing nothing and leaving the site as it is is the best alternative, Smuts conceded.
That offers scant solace to Fair Haveners who for two decades have lived near hulking smokestacks on what should be a coveted waterfront property. They face the prospect of looking at them for decades more.
PCBs & “Mismanagement”
The more immediate problem is what the activists described as Asnat Realty’s “grave mismanagement” of the site. They said that for the last five years Asnat has been mishandling the site by failing to secure it and by engaging in salvage operations that have worsened environmental problems.
“We don’t know exactly what’s happening,” Chris Schweitzer of the environmental justice network said after the formal press conference Wednesday. “That’s why we’re here. Scavenging is going on. We don’t know the site is safe and sealed. The company isn’t organized and on top of the situation.”
United Illuminating stopped producing energy at English Station in 1992. It sold the plant in 2000 to Quinnipiac Energy LLC, which was supposed to open a plant to provide excess power during peak periods and clean up the site. When Quinnipiac Energy’s plans didn’t materialize, the company sold English Station in 2006 to Evergreen Power LLC, which then transferred part of the property to Asnat Realty. Evergreen and Asnat have overlapping principals.
The DEEP alleges that both Quinnipiac and Evergreen failed to notify it of the sale and pay a transfer fee in violation of Connecticut law. Asnat Realty’s position is that Quinnipiac was responsible for notifying the state of the transfer.
The environmentalists and preservationists based their claims of Asnat’s “grave mismanagement” on several DEEP documents, particularly an April 18 report by Janet Kwiatkowski, a DEEP environmental analyst.
In her report, Kwiatkowski noted the discovery of PCBs in the oil through the transportation company’s complaint—Asnat had not reported it to the DEEP—and noted that the Connecticut Testing Lab found PCBs at a “99%” concentration. Federal and state officials describe that level as very high.
Kwiatkowski also expressed concern over Asnat representative Marc Casslar’s reaction to the PCB discovery. Casslar (whose name is misspelled throughout Kwiatkowski’s report,)is president of Bloomfield’s GeoQuest, an environmental management and consulting firm hired by Asnat.
According to the report, Casslar said he didn’t know about the oil removal. Casslar “stated he was not sure what work was being done at the site and had nothing to do with the rejected load,” the report said.
Casslar did acknowledge “the recycling/salvage activities” and explained “these were necessary to pay for the environmental work,” the report stated. Another DEEP official, Lori Saliby, was then quoted as saying that “the money generated from the transformer salvage would not even begin to cover the cost of remediation and disposal.”
Upon learning that the oil could not be sold and recycled, Casslar “proposed to put the transformer oil back into the transformers and this would count as a storage vessel,” analyst Kwiatkowski wrote. “I stated that would be illegal” under the federal Toxic Substances Control Act [TSCA].
“Mr. Cassler [sic] stated they do not have any money to pay for the disposal of the PCB oil and the only revenue they have is what they recover from the scrapped items,” Kwiatkowski wrote. “I stated the oil would have to be sent to a TSCA facility either for temporary storage or for incineration.”
Reached Thursday, Casslar said he didn’t know when the oil was being shipped. He blamed the waste broker or the waste hauler (he wasn’t sure whom) for sending off oil with high levels of PCBs.
“The error was caught before damage was done,” Casslar said, and the oil has been disposed of safely.
The EPA’s Marianne Milette agreed, saying the oil had been incinerated in an EPA-approved facility in Texas.
As for his suggestion that the PCB-laden oil be returned to the plant’s transformers, Casslar said it was “one of his suggestions” because other disposal means are so expensive. He said Asnat Realty ultimately paid for the disposal.
$3M Vandal Pricetag
Kwiatkowski’s report also reflected concerns about security at the site. The DEEP had received anonymous complaints about broken and open windows. Casslar said vandals had been in the main building and had stolen about $3 million worth of metal, according to the report.
Representatives of the New Haven Office of Economic and Business Development were concerned enough about security that they attended a February meeting among various government officials and Casslar’s GeoQuest, according to the report.
In a phone conversation Thursday, Casslar denied saying that $3 million in metal had been stolen. He said there had been many “rumors about security issues at the site” and that he had heard metal and copper had been stolen before he was hired eight months ago.
In an interview Thursday, Joe Vendetti, a vice president of Grant Mackay, also expressed concern about vandalism at the site. He said it is impossible to keep “vagrants” out of the building, including some who arrive by raft on the Mill River. He said the difficulty in securing the site is another reason demolition should occur quickly.
Vendetti: Kiss Our Feet
Finally, Kwiatkowski’s report noted concerns about the ongoing asbestos removal: “I spoke with Steve Dahlem from the DPH [state Department of Public Heath] Asbestos Program and he stated they have issues with the way the asbestos was being handled and he was waiting for the consultant to send in a plan.”
DPH has now signed off on the asbestos removal as proposed by Grant Mackay. It became clear Thursday, however, that Grant Mackay can do the asbestos removal only if the building is dismantled.
In an email sent Thursday to Mayor John DeStefano Jr. and all 30 members of the Board of Aldermen, Vendetti indicated that Asnat Realty is not paying his company anything to remove the asbestos. “Our contract value is zero ($0),” he wrote. The company plans to “recoup significant quantities of metal (steel) to pay the cost of the abatement and demolition (over $5 million).”
Vendetti asked the mayor and aldermen to waive the city’s demolition delay ordinance. The ordinance allows the city to impose a 90-day waiting period before granting a permit to demolish a structure that has been designated historically significant. English Station fits that designation.
Grant Mackay needs to demolish “the entire west side” of the building to allow asbestos-containing “boilers to be imploded and fall to the west (away from high tension wires).” It also needs to begin demolition immediately to recover scrap metal to pay for the asbestos abatement. Finally, Vendetti wrote that “the building should be destroyed because it has sat dormant and decaying for 15 years.”
Soon after the email went out, City Hall made clear to Vendetti that it won’t waive the waiting period.
“We follow the rules as they’re laid down,” Smuts said. “If a contractor can’t follow the rules, he shouldn’t get the contract.”
Vendetti said in phone interview that he is “immobilizing his crew” because the deal is not economically feasible.
And he blasted the city. “New Haven should be kissing contractors’ feet and developers’ feet who want to demolish blighted buildings,” Vendetti said.
After further conversations with City Hall, however, Vendetti agreed to talk with city officials next week.
The demolition delay ordinance may not be Grant Mackay’s only problem. DEEP spokesman Dennis Schain said no work of any kind can be done on the site until the owner files a plan with the agency on how it plans to deal with the PCBs, which the owner has not done.
The federal EPA may be somewhat more forgiving. In March, its Boston office filed a subpoena requiring Asnat Realty to submit information on the location of PCBs at English Station. Asnat replied in May with information on PCBs at the facility’s exterior but said it could not access the interior because of the presence of asbestos and therefore could not provide information on PCBs in the interior, according to Milette, an EPA environmental engineer. She said the EPA can act against the company only if it shows that the company is shipping PCB waste off the property.
Even if the Agnat Realty can demonstrate that it can properly handle asbestos and PCBs as part of a demolition, community groups still oppose the plant’s destruction for a simple reason: They like the building.
“This is an eye-catching local landmark,” said Chris Wigren of the preservation trust. “It’s a very powerful building—and that isn’t just to make a pun.”
In a prepared statement, the Urban Design League explained that the architectural firm of Wescott & Mapes designed the power plant in the 1920s to “appeal to the eye as well as the cash box,” as a contemporary article stated.
In an email, the league’s Anstress Farwell noted that the plant is listed on the city’s Historic Resource Inventory and judged by the State’s National Register staff as being worthy of study for inclusion on the register.
Farwell said other abandoned power plants have been turned into museums and schools.
“If this building was truly historic it would have been saved 15 years ago rather than being allowed to decay,” responded Vendetti of Grant Mackay.
The environmental and preservation activists said they hope the newly-revealed problems will return English Station to the forefront of public concern.
Two years ago, when the plant’s original owner, United Illuminating, announced it was moving its headquarters out of New Haven, an aroused mayor and other activists took on the company for its failure to clean up English Station, among other issues. A year later, community activists pressed United Illuminating, which may have some liability for the plant it ran for 62 years. DeStefano subsequently backed off his criticism of the company during a UI open house.
Aldermen from two wards that straddle the site said it was time for renewed attention. Wooster Square’s Michael Smart and Fair Haven’s Migdalia Castro of Ward 16 attended Wednesday’s press conference and said they plan to ask the Board of Aldermen to hold public hearings to force English Station’s owner to testify.
Urban Design League’s Farwell said city officials “do understand the urgency” surrounding English Station.
To illustrate the urgency before the press conference, Farwell took note of Jackie Diaz and Luis Lugo, who were catching crabs off the bridge in front of the abandoned plant. “This is a very popular place for all kinds of fishing,” she said. “PCB contamination that can’t be controlled gets into water and seafood.”
Farwell then pointed at the three large crabs in a bucket that Diaz and Lugo planned to eat for dinner.