Saturday, March 29, 2014

Gov. Chris Christie’s polluting belch


The New Jersey governor’s curious support for a dirty power plant.

NEW YORK DAILY NEWS
Saturday, March 29, 2014, 3:45 PM

 Editorial cartoon featuring Chris Christie and B.L. England Power Plant
Drew Dzwonkowski/New York Daily News Daily News editorial cartoon featuring embattled New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
I own a summer house in Beesley’s Point, New Jersey. Chris Christie haunts it.
Beesley is a speck on Route 9, just off the bay opposite Ocean City. It’s a cozy enclave of a few hundred year-round residents and a handful of getaway homeowners like us. The cedar siding gives our house more of a country aura than a beach look, bordered by thick foliage and wind-bent trees.
This is a story about a power plant just beyond the trees: the 450-megawatt B. L. England generating station, owned by a firm called Rockland Capital, the only coal-fired polluter in the state still firing away without a full complement of scrubbers to catch sulfur and other emissions before they hit the air. Its property line runs within 30 feet of our back porch.
The fact that the plant keeps on churning speaks volumes about the way Christie makes decisions, especially when friends like just-resigned Port Authority chair David Samson and Christie mentor Rudy Giuliani — both of whose law firms represent Rockland — are pitted against the residents of Beesley and Ocean City.
Wolf Skacel, the recently retired head of compliance and enforcement for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, told me that B.L. England is the state’s “dirtiest” plant. That’s why Skacel forced its owners to sign a preliminary agreement to upgrade in 2004 and an administrative consent order in 2006, both imposed by the Democratic governors that preceded Christie.
Though the original agreement gave the plant until December 31, 2007 to begin to either retrofit or convert to natural gas, in 2012 the Christie administration’s Department of Environmental Protection signed an amendment giving Rockland until May 2015 to start the conversion or upgrade.
The Christie reprieve occurred despite a 2010 Clean Air Task Force per capita mortality report that ranked Ocean City the 14th most-contaminated metropolitan area of the 500 across America that still host coal-fired plants, trailing only cities in coal-worshipping Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio and Virginia.
The fact that the plant keeps on churning speaks volumes about the way Christie makes decisions, especially when friends like just-resigned Port Authority chair David Samson and Christie mentor Rudy Giuliani — both of whose law firms represent Rockland — are pitted against the residents of Beesley and Ocean City.
Over the past year-and-a-half, the Christie administration has converted the plant’s abysmal record into an argument to build a 22-mile, 24-inch pipeline to supply the plant with Marcellus shale oil and facilitate its conversion from coal to cleaner-burning fracked gas.
Quite a change in strategy: Instead of the punishing, pre-Christie promise to shutter the plant if it didn’t clean up, the Christie team would reward it with a $400 million pipeline by pointing out how bad it still is.
The amendment was executed within weeks of the plant’s retention of Wolff & Samson, the lobbying firm at the center of many recent Christie scandals. Samson is now a headlined name in his own right, having apparently championed and even voted for Authority projects that benefit his clients, as if what’s good for his booming law firm must be good for Jersey. Prosecutors recently subpoenaed firm records.
Partners at Samson’s firm were the ones who lobbied for the extensions that gave the plant more breathing room than the people who live near it. One of the partners was the ex chief of staff at the agency he now lobbies. Another was selected by Christie’s DEP enforcement division to act as a “stakeholder” in their internal policy discussions. The third is vice-chair of the nonprofit led by Christie’s wife that maintains the state mansion.
It’s not only Samson, however, who looms just beyond the Anderson windows of our A-frame house. The Manhattan office of Bracewell Giuliani, run by the former mayor, handles Rockland’s mergers and acquisitions. Giuliani has been the governor’s public face, making the national appearances Christie mostly stopped doing after his January, two-hour Bridgegate press conference.
A Giuliani friend and former deputy mayor, Randy Mastro, just finished a million-dollar, Christie-induced probe of Bridgegate and cleared him of all charges. Bridget Kelly and Bill Stepien, the two Christie aides dismissed by the governor because of the scandal, used to work for Rudy. Giuliani threw a Hamptons fundraiser for Christie last summer, and his law firm is representing another top Christie campaign operative in the current investigations.
But our backyard is, like Samson’s two-state Port Authority, overrun not only with Christie underbrush, but with connections to that other master of the multi-billion-dollar Authority, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Rockland’s chairman is Michael Del Giudice. He oversaw Andrew Cuomo’s transition committee in 2010, just as Samson chaired Christie’s in 2009.
Del Giudice, the lead independent director at Con Ed, was chief-of-staff to Andrew’s father, former governor Mario Cuomo, and more recently, the elder Cuomo has been an investor in and chairman of a Del Giudice banking company. Rockland is run out of the same Carnegie Hall Tower office as a state scholarship fund that Andrew Cuomo named Del Giudice to lead. Rockland’s vice-chair is Jerry Crotty, who once was counsel and secretary to Mario Cuomo and is now the president of an investment firm that owns more of Rockland than any other investor.
When Rockland acquired the plant for a $12 million pittance in 2006, it promised DEP it would complete the mandated expensive, pollution-reducing retrofitting that prompted the prior owners to sell.
It also hired Tony Burgos as its lobbyist. Burgos is another former top Mario Cuomo assistant whose installation years ago as Port Authority vice-chair positioned him to become the connected bi-state lobbyist he is today. Burgos, Crotty and Del Giudice are major Andrew Cuomo donors and fundraisers, accounting for hundreds of thousands in contributions over the years (they do not give to Christie). There is no indication that the Cuomo administration has done anything to benefit Rockland, which does have New York operations.
Christie, on the other hand, was so eager to help Rockland that his DEP and Board of Public Utilities (BPU) decided to support the pipeline, paid for by rate increases, despite that the fact that between its Cape May starting point and Beesley destination, it would run underground through 15 miles of the million-acre Pinelands, the country’s first natural preserve and a United Nations Biosphere Reserve.
Four prior Jersey governors, including Republicans Tom Kean and Christie Whitman, signed a letter opposing the pipeline because of its threat to the Pinelands, a stretch of pine-oak forests, dark tea-colored streams, a 17-trillion-gallon aquifer, large farms and small towns that cuts across a quarter of the state.
An interesting side-note: Christie, in his usual swashbuckling style, was extending Rockland’s deadlines, and exempting them from taxes paid by most Jersey energy companies, at the same as he was suing Pennsylvania and other states for allowing coal-fired soot to infect Jersey air.
But, even after DEP and BPU approvals in 2013, the pipeline still faced one more hurdle: the 15-member Pinelands Commission, which was established decades ago to safeguard the preserve.
BPU made itself the pipeline applicant at the commission, rather than Rockland or South Jersey Gas, the company that was to build and operate it. That unusual substitution, with one state body petitioning another, gave the project an unmistakable edge. The commission vote was scheduled for Jan. 10, but that turned out to be two days after Bridgegate’s “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” emails surfaced, making it the first implicit test of Christie’s post-scandal powers.
Four days before the slated vote, the Christie-appointed Pinelands Commission executive director had already issued a 42-page report recommending approval, and, in December, its counsel had pushed a likely board opponent of the pipeline — a Columbia professor named Ed Lloyd — into recusing himself.
The counsel cited an alleged conflict of interest so inconsequential it wouldn’t even register on a Samson meter. The attorney, Lloyd claimed, told him that she’d contacted the State Ethics Commission “on orders from the governor’s office,” and that ethics officials had “ordered you to recuse yourself,” a charge the counsel denies.
The Pinelands reserve covers seven counties. Each county government appoints a member of the commission, matching the seven appointed by the governor (the U.S. Department of Interior names one). One of the county appointees died just before the scheduled pipeline vote, prompting Christie allies to fill the vacancy in such a rush that a new pro-pipeline member was named before the departed one was buried.

 Beesley's Point Power Generating Plant near Beesley's Point New Jersey (far north of Cape May County). Burns coal in 2 generators, fuel oil in the third
Wikimedia Commons Beesley's Point Power Generating Plant near Beesley's Point, New Jersey.
Despite the forced recusal and rushed replacement, four Christie appointees joined two county-selected members and the Interior appointee to deadlock the vote and stall the project.
The local state senator, Jeffrey Van Drew, a Democrat long allied with Christie and the recipient of thousands in Rockland donations, is trying now to find a way to circumvent or redo the vote. Christie announced that he is supporting the Van Drew efforts, and the three-year terms of some of the commission opponents end this summer, giving the governor an opportunity to change its vote.
So, what now for this plant and my town?
Both sides agree that the plant is unnecessary most of the time, but its champions argue that it’s a vital emergency backup. Opponents point out that it’s virtually at sea level and is as likely to crash in a storm as it is to fill a gap.
I’ve spent a lifetime investigating just these kinds of deals, yet missed one so close to me I ran by the plant’s 175-foot smokestack whenever I jogged across the Beesley’s Point Bridge. We were often awakened by the 90-car trains hauling in the coal associated with 13 premature deaths a year, according to the Clean Air Task Force national study. We swam in the bay so contaminated by 360-degree water discharged by the plant that the Sierra Club sued to block it from killing “billions” of fish.
I live with questions about whether its fine-particle soot — high in sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides — has anything to do with why a lifelong nonsmoker and runner like me wound up with a lung affliction that has me on oxygen today, after making it through lung-cancer surgery last year.
But it’s the deal, not the plant, that makes me sick. Connections compromised public safety once again — this time where I live and, unfortunately, breathe.
Barrett is an investigative reporter who has covered New York and national politics for four decades, mostly at the Village Voice. His wife is a special adviser to Gov. Cuomo.
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