Environment

Energy company eyes Hunts Point

File photo

Former site of the NYOFCo plant, which a new venture hopes to reopen soon as an alternative energy operation.

New gas burns cleanly, but is it really clean? asks community board

A new alternative energy company is looking to open in the former New York Organic Fertilizer Co. plant on the East River waterfront next to Barretto Point Park, promising to help supply clean fuel to the city and jobs to Hunts Point, with no added air pollution for the peninsula.

But in a Community Board 2 meeting on June 3, environmental committee members said promises to create a non-polluting energy venture on the industrial waterfront sounded too good to be true. The board was alarmed to learn recently formed Hunts Point Clean Energy plans to extract gas in Pennsylvania by using the highly controversial hydrofracking extraction method, then build a facility there to store the gas before shipping it to the 120,000 square foot Hunts Point plant for conversion into energy.

Hydrofracking is currently banned in New York because of public pressure over concerns the toxins used to extract the gas pollute the water table.

“Everyone was skeptical,” Ralph Acevedo, chair of the environmental committee, said of board members’ reaction to the proposal.

Gas industry experts say the fuel the new plant would supply, dimethyl ether, burns far more cleanly than more traditional kinds of fuel. But not only that, it can also be used as a cleaner alternative to diesel, experts maintain, which could help reduce air pollution.

The venture is being financed in part by Steven Switzen of Noex International, a manufacturing company based in the city, who has teamed up with businessman Alfredo Forte to launch the venture.

“Environmentally it’s benign. It’s not a global warmer, it’s not an ozone depleter,” said Forte in a phone conversation in July. “DME is the best fuel no one ever heard of.”

As a result of dimethyl ether’s growing reputation as a clean alternative to diesel, it has become increasingly common as a go-to energy source in China and other countries. The Swedish automaker Volvo has announced plans to roll out trucks equipped to burn it, instead of diesel, in 2018.

Forte said that rather than fighting the community, he has taken the board’s criticisms to heart and altered his blueprint. He and his partner have decided to forgo their initial plans to build a Pennsylvania facility, and will instead look to obtain the gas they need from Con Edison’s Hunts Point terminal or the wastewater treatment plant.

If Hunts Point Clean Energy eventually opens in the former NYOFCO plant, there could be an incentive for businesses with trucking fleets to use their product. Trucks will be required to meet stricter city emissions standards by 2019, which could  make it sensible for local businesses to retrofit their fleets to take dimethyl ether, rather than buying expensive new trucks. Local auto businesses could prosper if they are hired to take on large-scale engine conversion projects.

Staffing the plant, too, will create job opportunities, say the new owners. Between 30 and 40 people will be hired to man the plant. Those new hands would be trained in the Bronx, to take advantage of the state’s Start-Up New York tax break for businesses on college campuses, they say. The company has spoken to Congressman José E. Serrano’s office about a potential partnership with Bronx Community College’s Center for Sustainable Energy.

“While it is still early in the process, I am generally supportive of the idea of having a project that would support clean fuels and help address the problem of air pollution in our district,” Serrano said, in a statement.

Though the project will need approval from government agencies, the community board’s approval isn’t required, but it sets the tone for future relations between businesses and the community. Acevedo said the environmental committee’s misgivings are subject to change if the company commits to avoiding fracked gas in the manufacturing process.

“If he is taking into account questions that we had and our overall feelings, that’s a good thing,” said Acevdeo. “If he wants to be a good neighbor, he needs to come back and keep us in the loop and be as transparent as possible.”

Hunts Point Clean Energy says it expects to purchase the site from the present owner, Castle Oil, within a year and complete a projected $150 million renovation within 18 months after that.

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