In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, many downtown Manhattan buildings relied on emergency generators for power in an effort to return to normalcy. As of last week, Council Member Margaret Chin’s office reported 105 emergency generators were still operating downtown, providing electricity to these buildings.
While these generators may be necessary in an emergency, community members and elected officials are concerned over why they still have such a prominent presence downtown. The generators emit potent, potentially hazardous fumes and often deafening noises. They also appear to be running largely unregulated by city agencies, which have not demonstrated much oversight in the situation, according to downtown’s elected officials.
“Many of the streets in Lower Manhattan, particularly in the Financial District, are literally lined with [these] generators,” said Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. “We all know that after 9/11, thousands of Lower Manhattan residents were exposed to air that caused serious health problems, and we cannot allow that to happen again.”
A Con Edison spokesperson explained that the buildings’ management companies are responsible for the generators still in place.
“They’re the ones who bore the brunt,” he said.
Chin’s office agreed that Con Edison is not to blame for the delay. The buildings’ management companies reportedly continue to push back the dates when they’ll be ready to reconnect to power, now giving time frames as late as April in some cases.
“Con Edison is willing and ready to hook these buildings back up,” said Kelly Magee, a spokesperson for the council member. “The buildings are not ready to receive power. The buildings have some kind of issue, whether it’s damage to the transformer or a part that needs a replacement—they’re unable to hook back up to the grid.”
Magee said these buildings’ management companies would not return their phone calls and there was no explanation as to why the dates kept getting pushed back. She speculated building management companies are taking advantage of this opportunity to make other repairs to their buildings. Without incentive for the management companies and enforcement by the city, she said there’s not enough pressure for the companies to act in a timely fashion.
Once a building is ready to be hooked back up to the Con Edison grid, only a quick inspection is necessary before this can take place.
Council Member Chin, whose Lower Manhattan district has many such generators, is disappointed in the city’s response thus far. She said her office has received many residential complaints over the last month and that she’s repeatedly reached out to the city and tried to work through official channels.
One woman called the council member’s office to complain she had fainted while exiting a downtown subway because of the overwhelming fumes released by the generators.
“The residents are contacting our office and saying they need help—these fumes are going right into their apartments,” explained Chin. “People have been very patient and they understand it’s an emergency, but week after week … it’s taking too long.”
“The Department of Health needs to provide solutions,” said Chin. “Now they’re saying seal off your windows with plastic—that’s not an appropriate way to live.”
“The phone calls are seriously disturbing,” added Magee.
Magee said the council member’s office has been working to get the Department of Environmental Protection and the Department of Mental Health and Hygiene to come out and regularly conduct inspections of the generators.
“What it seems like to us is in the beginning there was an emergency situation; a lot was done without much oversight, and it wasn’t until we asked for enforcement that the DEP started doing anything,” Magee said.
“We go and look around ourselves, and we can see the smoke spewing out,” she added. “The DEP needs to be down there every single day, and they need to get the dirty ones out.”
The council member said it seemed not much thought had been given to the generators’ physical placement either.
“To be listening to one 24 hours a day is a lot to ask of residents,” said Chin, who explained they were loud enough to drown out any conversation in the street.
Ryan Carlino works on Water Street, right by the river. He said he was not allowed to return to his office building until Dec. 4.
“We literally have to walk through a tunnel of generators to get to the entrance of our building,” he said. “There’s smoke everywhere. It constantly smells like diesel fumes.”
“I’m sure they’re safe, I guess,” he added. “They were OK’d by the EPA. But they look like they could blow up or electrocute someone at any point.”
The generators are also loud, according to Carlino. “The noise isn’t a huge inconvenience since you can’t hear them inside,” he said. “It’s just really weird and post-apocalyptic walking through them to get to work.”
When asked how he knew the generator had been approved by the EPA, Carlino said his company’s operations coordinators told workers the EPA had checked them out.
A Department of Environmental Protection spokesperson confirmed that DEP inspectors are going block by block in Lower Manhattan to ensure that all generators are properly certified and are meeting emissions standards, and the DEP has also teamed up with the city’s Health Department and the state Department of Environmental Conservation to monitor air quality. The agencies have installed three additional air testing sites since Hurricane Sandy and have not detected patterns of higher concentrations of particulate matter.
While they may technically be safe, the generators are still a huge nuisance. In many cases, residents cannot understand why the generators powering some commercial buildings must remain running all night.
“Imagine that happening continuously all day long and at night when people are supposed to be sleeping,” said Chin. “We have families and lots of young kids down here.”
Chin said the city has already established a rapid repair program with residential buildings, one which might soon have to extend to commercial buildings as well.
“It’s unacceptable that they will be there all winter,” she said. “If there are missing parts, get them.”
While the noise and pollutants affect residents and workers in the area, Chin is particularly concerned about generators operating directly outside of a downtown school complex.
“We need all the help we can get,” said Chin. “We want this done by Christmas. This is our Christmas present.”
Carlino is at least glad to be back in his own office building despite the generators. “We were up in Times Square,” he said. “It was awful.”
Tags: dep, Department of Environmental Conservation, Department of Mental Health and Hygiene, downtown, EPA, Financial District, generators, health department, Lower Manhattan, Margaret Chin, Ryan Carlino, Times Square, Water Street
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