The New York Times The New York Times New York Region May 17, 2002  

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Post-9/11, Questions About Security at Electric Plants


Rose Marie Poveromo never thought much about security at the five power plants near her home in Astoria Heights, Queens. Instead, she focused on things like whether the tiny particles coming out of the plants caused cancer and made people sick.

That was, until Sept. 11. That is when the nightmares with the plane crashing into a plant, or a truck bomb going off, started surfacing.

"I have been worried about security because of the power plants ever since the attacks," Ms. Poveromo said recently from her home on 81st Street, which is near several other plants that, combined, generate half the electrical power in New York City. Her fears were calmed, she said, a few days after the attacks, when the city sent orange Sanitation Department trucks packed with sand to the plants and extra patrol officers to the streets.

Now, however, as the Police Department and other agencies get back to business as usual, the sand trucks and officers are gone. And Ms. Poveromo's nightmares have returned.

"Things have become quiet, and now all of a sudden security is on the back burner," said Ms. Poveromo, a real estate agent who is also the president of an Astoria neighborhood group, the United Community Civic Association.

As attention has focused on the safety of places like Indian Point, a nuclear plant in Westchester County, people like Ms. Poveromo who live near electric power plants, transmission lines and substations have become increasingly frustrated by what they consider a lack of adequate security.

Some estimate that an attack at a large power plant could set a small neighborhood ablaze by igniting a chain of powerful explosions.

This has been of great concern to government officials like James K. Kallstrom, who stepped down this week as the director of the New York State Office of Public Security, which was created after Sept. 11.

"Quite frankly, there is nothing that is more of a national security asset than the power grid," said Mr. Kallstrom, who remains an unpaid adviser to the office, now led by John Scanlon, a former chief of patrol for the New York Police Department.

The debate is over not only whether more oversight of power plants is needed, but also over who should pay for it. Power companies say that they have done their best to improve security after the attack, and that if anything is needed from state agencies it is financial assistance, not oversight. The companies also worry that state laws might allow the public release of information, like maps of transmission lines.

Consolidated Edison officials say they are working closely with the police on security precautions.

In Queens, Assemblyman Michael N. Gianaris, a Democrat and a resident of Astoria, said he was alarmed by the fact that unlike Indian Point, where security is monitored by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, other power facilities are not monitored by government agencies. He has introduced legislation to give the state public security office responsibility for overseeing plants, substations and transmission lines.

He said he did not want security to get pushed to the side because of budget problems, particularly since the F.B.I. has issued alerts since Sept. 11 warning that power plants were being targeted by terrorists.

"In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, the government stepped in — you had the N.Y.P.D. cops and the National Guard, and there was an immediate mobilization," Mr. Gianaris said. "But as we move into the long term, you can see those things are not there, and it is just not possible for the state or the city to manage the ongoing costs."

Shortly after he took office in January, the police commissioner, Raymond W. Kelly, created two new positions — a deputy commissioner for intelligence and a deputy commissioner for counterterrorism.

Police officials say the men in those posts have been working on securing power networks. But they added that there were more than 1,000 potential power-related targets in the city, from Con Edison's power plant on East 14th Street in Manhattan to a KeySpan Energy plant in Far Rockaway, Queens.

Inspector Michael Collins, a Police Department spokesman, would not comment on specific plans. "The department initially responded and provided extensive resources for covering these sites," he said. "We have met with operators of many of the sites that were covered after 9/11 and we have taken some steps to increase security at them."

Power companies and the New York Power Authority, which also runs plants, have said they have made many improvements. "We have looked at our security and made changes that have improved it," said Jack Murphy, a Power Authority spokesman. "We have determined we are not going to talk about what the improvements are or quantify them, because that would play into the hands of anyone looking to do harm."

The sprawling nature of power distribution makes regulating security hard. Connecticut Light and Power Company operates 3,100 miles of transmission lines and 530 substations to serve 1.1 million customers.

"We are working with industry groups, federal, state and local officials to determine the appropriate level of preparedness," said Chris Riley, a company spokesman.

Andrea Staub, a spokeswoman for KeySpan, which operates plants and other facilities on Long Island and in Queens, said, "What I can tell you is that the attack did open our eyes to make sure that all our facilities were covered as soon as they could be."

Despite the assurances, Ms. Poveromo said she noticed a lack of security. She says she hopes that Mr. Gianaris's bill passes.

As for the other power plants in her neighborhood and plans for several new ones, she says her opposition has only grown. "If they want to build more power plants, let them build them in Manhattan," she said. "Or let them build them in the area of Albany where most of our legislators who make our decisions live."

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