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Duking It Out

Schenectady City Council joins activists in opposition to new natural-gas generating plant

As the Schenectady City Council passed a symbolic resolution at a heated meeting on Monday, local activists are hopeful that area opposition to Duke Energy North America is reaching a boiling point.

By a 6-to-1 vote, the Schenectady City Council passed a resolution to officially oppose the building of a natural-gas-fueled power plant in the Scotia-Glenville Industrial Park.

The council left open the question of whether the city would be willing to sell millions of gallons of water to, or allow its sewer system to be used by, Duke Energy. Whether the city decides to make water or waste disposal available to the company is viewed by many as a make-or-break decision regarding the developer’s plans to site a plant in Schenectady.

Councilman Michael Petta said the rest of the council was waiting to see how deep Duke’s pockets were before making any drastic decisions. “Quite frankly, I don’t even care,” said Petta. “But the other ones didn’t seem to want to [act] until they had more information.”

Petta plans to introduce a resolution against selling water to the plant, which would make shipping water to cool the facility difficult and expensive, as early as next week. The final decision of whether the plant will be sited in Schenectady is left up to the state Board on Electric Generation and Siting, a group “stacked with all [Gov. George E.] Pataki appointees,” Petta said. Opponents fear that the governor’s generally pro-upstate-development stance will sway the vote.

Controversy over the plan for a 520-megawatt plant has brewed for about three years. Along with environmental and noise concerns, local opponents question Duke’s integrity.

The most recent argument against the siting of the energy facility in Schenectady was supported by a helicopter test funded by Union College, Schenectady’s Stockade Association and the Heritage Foundation. According to Beth Petta, a member of the Stockade Association, Duke claimed that the stacks of their plant would not be visible from Union College. However, hovering in a helicopter at the height to which the stacks would rise, Petta said she could clearly see Union College, while people standing at the campus’ Nott Memorial could see her just as well.

“You’re going to see these stacks in the landscape,” said Petta, who is married to Councilman Petta, “and the plume will be heading right for Union.”

Duke spokeswoman Kate Perez said she was uncertain of where Duke was in the process of creating photographic models of what the plant would look like on the site.

“You might be able to see the stacks from one vantage point,” Perez said, “and you might not be able to see them from some other vantage points. Instead of a one-time pop with a helicopter up at 262 feet, we’ll be able to have some photo renderings that people can have and share that show what the stacks look like.”

Perez did not comment further on the models’ progress, but according to Neil Turner, president of the grassroots organization Citizens Advocating Responsible Development, Duke already completed such photo renderings in their application.

Opponents also criticize Duke’s environmental record and noted that the industrial park is being leased by the Galesi Group. Francesco Galesi, the group’s president, is being investigated in the collapse of telecommunications giant WorldCom. Galesi, ranked 205th on Forbes magazine’s list of the 400 richest Americans in 1990, dumped roughly 62 percent of his stock in WorldCom in the half-year preceding their bankruptcy, making his business deals less than trustworthy, activists said.

Schenectady Councilwoman Cathy Lewis, the lone council member voting against Monday’s resolution, said she found the Council’s actions pointless and the helicopter test flawed.

“On the power plant, I have no decision as a city council member,” Lewis said. “We only have a decision on selling our water, and as far as I’m concerned . . . we need to consider the fact that we as a city need revenue, and we have aging infrastructure problems for delivering the water to our own residents that some compensation could help us with.”

According to Lewis, it comes down to people taking responsibility for the power they use. “At my own house here, [Niagara Mohawk] has put in new utility poles,” Lewis said. “They’re increasing the voltage on the line. . . . Most people don’t want to turn off their computers and refrigerators and televisions and VCRs and power drawing appliances, and that’s what it comes down to. So should we be asking somewhere else to be having the generation capacity?”

Lewis also argued that the plant will have no significant effect on the community or on the Great Flats Aquifer, the primary source of drinking water for area residents, which the plant will rest on.

Beth Petta chalked up the drive to create more power to a frenzy started by California’s energy crisis last summer, which was later attributed to price gouging and manipulation by companies like Enron and, to a lesser extent, Duke.

Turner, whose organization obtained $111,000 in intervener funding (money the plant’s developers are legally obligated to provide to community members who want to conduct their own studies on the plant’s impact), said he is concerned with, among other things, particulate emissions, which are microscopic chemicals excreted by combustion. CARD is using some of its funding to do a study of the area’s unusual meteorology and wind currents, something he says Duke misjudged.

“People don’t appreciate that the particulates in the cooling tower . . . disperse out of the central tower over such a long way,” Turner said. “They don’t tell you that statistically, for every 10 microns per square meter, there is a 2-percent rise in mortality.”

The Environmental Protection Agency previously expressed a need to address particulate emissions, but there is no law controlling emissions of 10 microns or smaller in size. Turner said they have been known to cause asthma and respiratory illnesses. Opponents also expect property values to plummet if the plant creates an eyesore and erodes historic buildings in the area.

—David Riley

Time to Unite

Concerned about low wages, high turnover and low morale, Center for the Disabled workers petition to unionize

When Sandy Gustin’s 30-year-old son Chad first went to the Center for the Disabled to live, 11 years ago, she had the peace of mind that all of his needs would be taken care of. But in the last year, she said, there has been a change in the quality of care that concerns her.

“It is not that he is being neglected,” said Gustin. “But with such a high turnover rate and lack of staffing, many of his needs are not being met, and I don’t think he is progressing.”

For example, Gustin pointed out that her son, who is autistic, lives in a house with residents who have greater needs than he does. As a result, much of the care provider’s attention is focused on those clients with more pressing needs.

“Chad is capable of doing things,” said Gustin. “But he still needs some one-on-one work so he can progress. It’s difficult for the staff, who need to first make sure the clients’ basic needs, like hygiene, are attended, to focus on Chad’s needs, which may simply be that he gets out once in a while.”

She also said that with such a high employee turnover rate—which many attribute to low hourly wages—caregivers typically leave before they have time to build a close relationship with Chad, and he’s always faced with getting to know someone new.

“Half the time, I am not even informed when someone is leaving or if someone new has come in,” she added.

Gustin echoed the concerns of many other parents and employees at the center. Complaints of low wages, high turnover and lack of respect from the center’s upper management are just a few of the many reasons why employees of the Albany-based center would like to unionize. Last Thursday, Sept. 5, at a rally outside of the National Labor Relations Board in Albany, union officials from U.N.I.T.E. (Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees) and employees from the center submitted a petition requesting a formal vote by workers on joining the union.

“We provide excellent care, but we do it in the face of a lot of problems management isn’t dealing with,” said William Murphy, who works at one of the center’s group homes. “Our wages are so low a lot of us have to work second or third jobs, and we burn out and leave, so we’re chronically short-staffed. Organizing with U.N.I.T.E. means we’ll have a strong voice to address these problems that management can’t or won’t.”

Murphy added that many employees start with wages as low as $6.50 an hour.

U.N.I.T.E. is a Manhattan-based group that has leather workers as members in Gloversville and Johnstown, and has represented health-care workers across the state for at least 16 years.

While the Center for the Disabled would not comment about its workers wanting to unionize, it did release a written statement saying that the center is committed to resolving the problems brought forth by its workers.

“The Center for the Disabled has always been, and continues to be concerned about all of its staff members,” the statement reads. “The Center for the Disabled is conducting all of its business activities in a lawful manner and will follow the process set forth by the National Labor Relations Board. During these days ahead, we want to remind the community that the mission of the Center for the Disabled . . . will be upheld.”

But many workers are tired of empty promises, and said that the union would not only provide better working conditions but also improve the programs and services for the clients.

“Workers are so dedicated and loyal to the consumers they make sure that they don’t suffer,” said Murphy. “But when you are working in a home that is understaffed, the first thing to go is going to be recreational activities, like going to the park, the mall or the movies. These activities are just as important to their well-being as anything else.”

—Nancy Guerin

All They Were Saying . . .

A rally designed to promote peace and solidarity against terrorism becomes a shouting match between supporters of Israel and Palestine

Face-off: Demonstrators at pro-Israel rally. Photo by Joe Putrock

A pro-Israel rally Monday in downtown Albany, which was advertised as a show of solidarity against terrorism, turned into a confrontation between Israeli supporters and pro-Palestine protestors.

Sponsored by Capital District Friends of Israel, the rally featured leaders from various local faith communities and a laundry list of local politicians, including Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings, U.S. Reps. Michael McNulty (D-Green Island) and John Sweeney (R-Clifton Park), and New York state Lt. Gov. Mary Donahue, as speakers.

“This rally is to pledge support to Israel, the only democracy in the Middle East,” said Jennings. “The people of Albany stand up with and support Israel.”

The rally, which had roughly 150 attendees, was designed to express local opposition to terrorism worldwide, and to the terrorism experienced in Israel by the Jewish people specifically. But the rally’s one-sided position on the divisive Israeli-Palestinian conflict brought out a few dozen pro-peace, pro-Palestine protestors. The arrival of the protestors quickly led to shouting matches between the opposing groups and, consequently, police intervention to deter any potential violence.

“It is ironic, absurd even, that people think they can stand united with Israel and against terrorism,” said rally demonstrator Tom Ellis of Capital District for Justice and Peace. “It is an oxymoron. It’s ridiculous when you consider the money spent by the United States to execute Palestinians.”

Though the rally was meant to show a joint effort of Albany residents and Israelis standing against terrorism, its events strayed from the goal.

Fueled by a blend of antiterrorism rhetoric inflamed by the anniversary of Sept. 11, and the reflection on Jewish suffering brought about by Rosh Hashanah, the rally created a heated atmosphere in which the two groups exchanged their conflicting perspectives.

One by one, a group of pro-peace, pro-Palestine demonstrators filtered into the courtyard behind the Capitol through the thick security perimeter manned by New York state troopers on foot, bicycle and horseback. The troopers asked to search backpacks as the protestors distributed signs from a pile and unfurled banners. But the pro-Palestine demonstrators were met with the backs of pro-Israeli demonstrators.

Annette Levi, a pro-Israeli demonstrator, fired questions at the protestors and yelled rebuttals to their responses. “I think what they are saying is a bunch of lies,” said Levi. “There is no occupation. The Israeli army is getting out the suicide bombers who call themselves militants. They are just like the militants who committed the attacks of Sept. 11.”

But Yunus Fiske, also with CDJP, said that not all Palestinians support the suicide bombings. Fiske, who opposes both suicide bombings and Israeli military aggression, said equating all Palestinians to the reasoning of suicide bombers is irrational. Fiske summed up the rally as warmongering.

“Our politicians are here saying we’re against terrorism, and that is just not the case,” Fiske said. “They say we’re against terrorism yet we support Israel and human-rights violations against the Palestinian people. It’s hypocritical to say you are against terrorism and with Israel.”

As more rally demonstrators made their way to the courtyard, Pro-Israeli demonstrators strategically positioned themselves in front of the opposition’s signs, and repositioned themselves when the peace demonstrators tried to move. Grace White, a pro-peace demonstrator with CDJP, said the actions of the pro-Israeli demonstrators were typical.

“When we have a pro-Palestinian rally, they heckle the speakers,” White said. “This is a sign of someone who is afraid to hear what others say. They try to block out the truth, but the truth will set us free.”

Asked how he felt about representing the City of Albany as pro-Israel, and therefore against the pro-Palestine demonstrators, Jennings questioned if the latter were even from Albany.

White had another interpretation of Jennings’ and the other politicians’ involvement in the day’s events: “He wants the Jewish vote,” she said. “All the politicians up there, they all want the vote.”

The police intervened, standing ominously behind any discussion where voices were raised and making protestors remove the wooden stakes holding up their placards. Eventually, tensions between the two groups cooled, the two factions divided on opposite sides of the Philip Henry Sheridan statue behind the Capitol, and the audience began to pay more attention to the rally’s scheduled speakers.

As the rally wound down, the Israeli demonstrators offered their national flag, pins and newsletters to the pro-Palestine demonstrators, who, in turn, tried to exchange their literature. The event ended on a positive note as Fiske and Rabbi Deborah Gordon of Troy’s Berith Shalom Synagogue talked about bringing their issues together in a formal setting.

“There needs to be dialogue,” said Fiske. “If we can’t talk about this here, it’s not going to be done there.”

—Travis Durfee

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