Hudson River-area dwellers get tough with $350M Beacon Island project

GLENMONT – In January, Gov. Kathy Hochul and other prominent government officials, including Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan and US Rep. Paul Tonko was at the Port of Albany to celebrate a $350 million economic development project with the potential to turn the Capital Region into a major hub for renewable energy manufacturing while also addressing social justice issues and the global climate crisis.

The Port of Albany had been officially chosen to host the United States’ first-ever offshore wind manufacturing center.

The massive facility would employ up to 500 workers trained to assemble large offshore wind turbine towers to be shipped down the Hudson River for two large wind farms being built off the coast of Long Island by private developers under a program with NYSERDA, the state’s renewable energy agency.

The plan is designed to help reduce New York’s dependence on electricity produced by fossil-fuel power plants as required under the state’s new climate change law, which mandates that New York’s electricity supply be “carbon-free” by 2040.

“This mighty deep river will enable us to be the epicenter of offshore wind manufacturing that will serve the entire eastern seaboard,” Tonko told the crowd. “That’s a great opportunity. So we need to do this right.”

But what may not have been evident listening to Tonko and others that day was that the massive project – one of the most ambitious and complex in the port’s history – would not be built in the city of Albany but on an 82-acre waterfront site known as Beacon Island located just south of the city in Glenmont, a hamlet in the town of Bethlehem.

The Port of Albany purchased Beacon Island three years ago, when it began seeking site plan approval and zoning variances for the project from the town of Bethlehem.

That slow and deliberative process continued even when the pandemic hit in early 2020.

As a result, a large portion of the local review of the project by the town’s planning and zoning boards took place via video rather than at Town Hall, which was shut down under emergency orders from the state. Final approvals from the town were granted earlier this year.

But residents in Glenmont who live near Beacon Island say all of this was news to them back in the spring when a contractor hired by the port began clear-cutting Beacon Island of all its trees in preparation for the construction of four large buildings with smokestacks totaling more than half a million square feet of space.

Beacon Island is a piece of land created by landfill dumped on the shores of the Hudson over decades. During the 1950s and 60s, it became a dumping ground for coal ash from a nearby power plant that now runs on natural gas.

Although the port has yet to obtain nearly all of the state and federal environmental permits that are required before it can start construction on Beacon Island, the state Department of Environmental Conservation granted the port a special waiver at the end of March that allowed it to cut trees from the site and begin compaction of the soil, a process that takes up to six months.

Joanne Maier and her husband Dan can see Beacon Island from their home on Anders Lane, a short and narrow winding road up the hill from River Road..

“We could see the dust clouds from here,” Maier said, who like her neighbors believed they were watching toxic fly ash being released into the air.

That sparked fear in other residents as well, including Sylvia Rowlands, who lives on Halter Road and says there are mounds of loose fly ash all over the site.

“There’s no way to contain it,” Rowlands said. “It is a dangerous place.”

Fly ash is a common byproduct of coal-burning power plants, most of which no longer operate in New York state or have been switched over to using natural gas. Fly ash is often used as an additive in construction materials.

However, fly ash is also considered a health hazard if it is allowed to enter the air or the water supply since it can contain other dangerous chemicals such as arsenic, lead, and mercury that can cause serious health issues and even cancer.

A 2008 spill of a massive pond filled with liquid fly ash in Tennessee that contaminated homes and local waterways is considered one of the worst environmental disasters ever in that state, sickening hundreds of workers.

Officials with the DEC and the town, including Bethlehem supervisor David VanLuven, say the site has been deemed safe and that fly ash is contained at the site, which is monitored by the town and the state on a regular basis.

After a recent Town Board meeting where residents expressed their frustration with town leaders over Beacon Island, VanLuven said he will always make time to hear people’s concerns, while adding that the wind tower turbine project is very important to the town’s economy and to the state’s climate change reversal goals.

“My door is always open,” VanLuven said. “That’s the collaborative community government we have in Bethlehem.”

Despite that, dozens of residents who live near Beacon Island signed a petition in June asking the town to rescind its approvals, which included a variance that allows the project to be built on a floodplain and closer to the shoreline than the town’s zoning laws allow.

Led by attorney Chris Dempf, a longtime Glenmont resident who also lives on Hartman Road, the group is now suing to have a judge overturn the town’s approvals in what’s known as an Article 78 proceeding, hoping to force the port to go through the public approval process once more.

The suit alleges that residents within a 2-mile radius should have been notified in writing about the project before approvals were granted.

Minutes of meetings of the town’s zoning and planning boards indicate that no one spoke at public hearings to give residents an opportunity to weigh in on the project.

“Petitioners were not provided adequate notice of the public meetings and were not noticed with an opportunity to comment and provide input for the development of the environmental impact statement,” the lawsuit states. “Written notice should have been provided to all residents affected by this project.”

In fact, documents that the Port of Albany provided to the town of Bethlehem show that its community outreach for the Beacon Island was focused almost exclusively on residents in Albany’s South End near the port’s existing operations.

The port’s public participation plan filed with the town specifically singles out the Ezra Prentice public housing complex, located 1.7 miles from the Beacon Island site, since “disadvantaged communities” are often “disproportionately” impacted by emissions from manufacturing operations.

Although the focus on the South End and Ezra Prentice homes is part of the state’s focus on addressing social justice issues as part of its new climate change law, there is no mention of homeowners in Glenmont who may also be affected.

Their lawsuit, however, says there are serious concerns over not only the fly ash but also increased traffic as well as noise and visual changes that will negatively impact their children and their property values.

Nathaniel Gray, who lives next door to Maier and her husband, said he and other Glenmont residents are fully supportive of the state’s climate change and social justice goals.

“That’s important,” Gray said.

But he said at some point, there has to be consideration for the local impact on residents, even if the area is less populated and zoned for industrial use as compared to the hamlet of Delmar where Town Hall is located.

He said he remembers coming across several sick or dead small animals after the tree-clearing took place and wonders if there was a connection, although he knows its almost impossible to prove any connection.

“Why did I find a row of dead baby moles in my yard?” Gray said.

Meanwhile, the port suddenly stopped site work such as stump removal and grading and soil compaction at Beacon Island that is allowed under the DEC waiver.

But that didn’t happen because of the lawsuit. Rich Hendrick, CEO of the Port of Albany, said nothing will be done at the site until the port obtains its state and federal permits, putting the project months behind the construction schedule outlined in a contract with Equinor, a Norwegian wind energy development firm that needs the towers for its two wind farms it is building off Long Island in partnership with the British energy firm BP.

That sudden pause has led to speculation that the Beacon Island project as well as nearly $30 million in federal funding awarded to the port to pay for preparing the site could be in peril, an idea that Hendrick and other supporters say is unlikely.

Mark Eagan, the CEO of the Center for Economic Growth in Albany, says his organization has been working on establishing offshore wind power manufacturing in the Capital Region for four years now, and interest is as high as it has ever been after NYSERDA issued its latest solicitation to developers last month to add even more offshore wind energy to the state’s electrical grid.

Delays aren’t out of the ordinary, especially when dealing with a relatively new industry. Most offshore wind turbine components are made overseas in places like Europe where offshore wind farms are more common.

“There are unique challenges that come when you’re the first,” Eagan said. “But they can be overcome.”

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