Following an announcement Sunday from Governor Andrew Cuomo, a group of ratepayers, elected officials and environmental groups are filing a lawsuit in state Supreme Court demanding access to documents related to backroom deals over the fate of a pair of controversial power plants: the Dunkirk plant in Chautauqua County and the Cayuga plant in Tompkins County.
On Sunday, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a $650 million backroom deal to convert the uneconomic coal plant in Dunkirk to natural gas—foregoing a far cheaper and cleaner option to invest in transmission line upgrades that would make New York’s electric grid more efficient and better able to accommodate renewable energy.
The Public Service Commission—the agency charged with reviewing the conversion proposal for the Dunkirk and Cayuga plants—has yet to receive a final written proposal from plant operators, let alone review it, accept public comment, or issue a decision. Moreover, critical documents related to the conversion plans have been withheld from the public, despite repeated requests from the groups involved in the lawsuit announced today.
“The Governor’s announcement that a deal has been made before the proposal has even been written and reviewed by the Public Service Commission demonstrates a flagrant abuse of authority, and is the latest example of the flawed public process that our lawsuit aims to challenge said Tompkins County Legislator Carol Chock. “Converting these plants to natural gas would lock the region into continued use of fossil fuels and could hike electricity bills for people and businesses across a 20-county region in western and central New York.”
The groups are suing PSC for access to documents believed to detail the environmental impacts and rate hikes associated with the conversion of the Dunkirk and Cayuga plants—including records of meetings between PSC staff and plant operators that led to the $650 million Dunkirk plant deal.
Chock, along with Town of Caroline councilmember Irene Weiser, are representatives of Ratepayer and Community Intervenors—a group of ratepayers and elected and public officials from an eight-county region. The group, along with Citizens Campaign for the Environment is filing the lawsuit, with help from the nonprofit environmental law organization Earthjustice.
“Instead of leading the way toward New York’s clean energy future, Governor Cuomo appears stuck in the past,” said Earthjustice Attorney Christopher Amato. “The decision-making process surrounding these fossil fuel plants has been characterized by secrecy and backroom dealing. Even as the Governor pronounced this project a done deal, the public has yet to see basic information about the rate hikes and the environmental impacts associated with this massive fossil fuel investment.”
The cost of converting the two plants could reach a skyrocketing $1.5 billion—a cost that would ultimately fall to ratepayers. An alternate proposal to upgrade regional transmission lines is believed to cost under $100 million—and represents an important investment for future renewable energy projects.
“The public stands to suffer from decades more of fossil fuel addiction and the detrimental environmental impacts that go along with dirty energy, yet they are unjustly being shut out of the decision-making process,” said CCE Program & Communications Director Brian Smith. “Governor Cuomo’s mantra has been that these types of decisions must be made with all the facts. It’s unfortunate, but necessary, that those representing the public must go to court to get the facts.”
Today’s announced lawsuit appears to be the first time in more than 20 years that residential ratepayers have banded together to sue the state PSC. But it’s not the first time the agency has come under fire for backroom dealing. Earlier this year, the PSC was criticized by the Moreland Commission on Utility Storm Preparation and Response for locking the public out of its decision-making process.