Written by Betsy Abraham Wednesday, 26 February 2014 00:00
On a sunny day, employees of TRACON, the Federal Aviation Administration’s radar approach facility in Westbury, think twice about enjoying lunch outside. They don’t want to risk being exposed to whatever their next door neighbor, the Covanta energy plant, is spewing into the air out of its exhaust stack.
“It’s so rare to not see that plume of white smoky mist. I don’t recall a time when it wasn’t there,” said Kirsten Healey, a TRACON employee since 1997. “Depending on the weather sometimes we have to walk right through it.”
The Covanta plant has been open since 1989 and TRACON employees say that for the past three years, the air pollution has gotten worse, damaging vehicles, trees and potentially the health of employees and residents of the area.
“We’re breathing it in. We don’t know what’s in this matter,” said TRACON employee John Karnbock. “We’re being told it’s water vapor, but we have no idea. We want an investigation done to ensure what is in it so it’s not an unknown.”
James Regan, spokesman for Covanta, said that the company is well aware of the complaints but assures that there is nothing harmful coming out of the tower; it’s just evaporated water.
“They condense steam used to make electricity back into water. Some of that water evaporates and it’s steam coming off the cooling tower. In part of the process we use well water, which contains calcium, which can leave dry water spots when it dries on cars,”
Regan explained. “But those water droplets are safe and harmless. The amount of steam can be worse in the cooler winter months, and we see steam coming off the cooling towers much more than in the past.”
“We realize this is an inconvenience to our neighbors and that the water droplets have been much larger than usual, but we’re trying to fix it,” he said.
A security guard at a location east of the plant says that he covers his car every day to keep it from being ruined by the particles, which cause hard-to-remove spots on glass and paint. He bought a $400 cover to keep the particles from falling on his car.
“We’re being told it’s safe,” he said. “They told us they did testing and that it’s just mist. But it smells and it’s messy and not healthy. It’s insulting to have this happen.”
Healey believes it’s more than just water vapor coming out of the stack, as it has a greasy, sticky consistency.
“You go out to your car and there’s a greasy film. It’s hard to get off, you have to use something abrasive,” Healey said. “And if it’s damaging the paint of cars, what’s it doing to us when we breathe it in?”
TRACON has enlisted the help of New York Senator Charles Schumer, who called for a federal investigation into the air pollution emanating from the incinerator. Schumer called on the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to investigate the air pollution immediately and find out what is being emitted and ensure public health air quality standards are being met.
“Clean air shouldn’t be a guessing game. The people who live, work and play here should be guaranteed peace of mind to know their air is clean and safe to breathe,” Schumer said. “There’s a lot of junk in the air and we have to have it investigated. If these particulates are toxic, we’ll be asking the EPA to act immediately to make this plant clean up its act.”
Schumer is also calling for the EPA to consider requiring Covanta to install air monitors to ensure the air is clean at all times if they consider it warranted after sampling the particulate matter. A further step would be calling in the National Institute for Occupational
Safety and Health (NIOSH), to perform Health Hazard Evaluations on TRACON employees to make sure they have not been breathing in harmful pollutants which could have life-threatening consequences.
“They’re a good neighbor and are willing to communicate with us, but it’s still an issue,” said one TRACON employee.
Regan said Covanta is planning maintenance work on the cooling towers which would reduce the amount of moisture and that the company was also looking at the whole system to find a long term solution to reduce the amount of water being released. He said
Covanta is willing to see what they can do to help those whose cars have been damaged by the water droplets.
The Covanta plant is located in Westbury and is surrounded by Nassau Community College, the Eisenhower Park Golf Course, Source Mall, and Roosevelt Raceway shopping center, as well as numerous restaurants, hotels, residences and stores.
For people like Healey, who not only works next to Covanta but lives three miles away, many day-to-day activities, like recreation and grocery shopping, take place in the shadow of the plume.
“They have a responsibility to us, to at least be open as to what they’re spewing into the atmosphere,” she said. “Not just for us employees, but citizens.”
Regan noted that in the last year, the Federal Aviation Administration has conducted air monitoring and other tests; the results of which showed nothing of concern from the air or droplets.
“We understand our neighbors concerns and they have the right to raise them, but we also want to draw attention to the fact that management has done tests and they show nothing of concern,” Regan said.
He noted that Covanta is open to the EPA coming in to do tests, but that the plant is also monitored 24/7 by the state Department of Environmental Conservation and EPA. They also undergo regular testing annually.
“We undergo testing continuously,” said Regan. “While the droplets are large and an inconvenience, they are safe.”