Complications with English: A Fight for Clean Power and Clean Air

W hen I visited Curt Johnson’s office on Temple Street in the spring of 2010, a large city-planning map of New Haven stiffened with cardboard leaned against the wall. Three transparencies overlaid the map. Each one projected a colored amoeba over the rectilinear plots of downtown. A purple blob spread over East Rock and Fair Haven. Green covered downtown and Fair Haven. Yellow snaked through Yale University.

At the epicenter of the map and the origin of this colored dispersal was a small dredge island pulled from the bottom of the Mill River in the 1880s. On top of the island sat a red polygon: English Station, that dormant beast of brick and steel that had neither burned fuel nor spun turbine in almost twenty years. “Because it is a high box with low stack, you get these downdrafts over the stack,” Johnson explained. “It’s just the way they built them back then. Modern stacks are much taller, so you get more dilution. But because English Station’s a high box with low stacks, meteorologically you get these touchdowns in schools, daycares, elder care centers.

“You can see the severity of the problem,” Johnson continued, “Purple clouds represent the short bursts of exposure, the kind that cause chronic pulmonary obstructive problems, get deep in the lungs.” He flipped up the transparency of yellow clouds to look more closely at the purple. “Y’know?”

Johnson, with a coalition of others, fought the battle against English Station from 2000 until 2003. They raised two central challenges to the reactivation of English Station. At the state level, environmental groups and individuals questioned the regulatory approval of the plant’s permits: was regulation stringent enough, and was it being interpreted properly? At the local level, activists turned to the newly minted state environmental justice statute, House Bill Number 5145, which forbids disproportionately burdening impoverished, minority neighborhoods. Both Hartford and New Haven served as battlefields.

But the battles themselves were fought over the #2 oil burners, not the natural gas burners. Mininberg’s initial proposal, despite its promise, was stymied by the vociferous, knee-jerk reaction of a few local environmentalists. Drawn to the offensive, Mininberg’s business partners retrenched, dug in their heels. Cooperation, which was easily possible through the realities on the ground, tripped across the artificial fences of ideology.

A proposed final decision in September of 2002 granted Quinnipiac energy the right to operate two #2 oil boilers on premise. An appeal led to persuasive oral argument by the intervenors. With the friendly support of Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, Commissioner Art Rocque at the DEP overruled the proposed final decision and denied Quinnipiac Energy the permit to operate. He sighted the need for flexibility and foresight in the interpretation of regulation. “It was a step outside the pure regulatory framework,” said Johnson. “Art looked at impacts to human health not necessarily governed in law books. It was a unique case, if not precedent–setting, just because it was so fact-specific.” Quinnipiac Energy had no further recourse when the permit was denied.

Environmental groups considered the ruling a major victory, environmental justice chapters saw it as vindication, and community organizations rejoiced.

When I first contacted him, Mininberg nearly declined an interview about these proceedings. “I didn’t want to pull all of these memories back up,” he explained. “Neither UI nor QE were trying to cause disharmony in the community. We were hoping to do something constructive with the property.” The plan to do something constructive was killed before it had a chance. Across the spectrum, community leaders and environmental activists were bellowing, not listening, for environmental justice. “And I thought I was offering environmental justice,” Mininberg sighed, “trying to get cleaner air in New Haven with more power generation and cheaper rates.”United Illuminating and Quinnipiac Energy were both furious at the Commissioner’s second-round intervention and, as Lynne Bonnett, former director of the New Haven Environmental Justice Network put it, “They were going to have his head one way or another.” Rocque stepped down the following year.

After the permits were denied, Quinnipiac Energy skirted  bankruptcy for a few years. Mininberg lost his investment. The company explored a few more avenues for legal recourse, then gave English Station away to a business partnership between Evergreen Ventures and Asnat Realty. Quinnipiac charged a token percentage of property taxes. Mininberg’s colleagues from Quinnipiac then fled state jurisdiction. They wanted no association with either the property or Mininberg. The property, designated a brownfield as of 2005, still sits dormant, though under new ownership. Neither Asnat Realty nor Evergreen Ventures were unavailable for comment.

Rob Smuts is second in command to the Mayor, which one might guess entering his office – not ostentatious, but a huge corner room spanned with windows and a formidable dark wooden desk. Two willowy birches flank the desk, and behind it is a dimpled leather chair wide enough to hold two Rob Smutses.Rob loves the City of New Haven. He has been active in its politics since his freshman year at Yale College in 1997. The moribund English Station bothers him deeply and personally.

“Of course I would like to see it active, contributing to the economy of the town and the vitality of the neighborhood. But the current owners are weird. They float all sorts of strange ideas, like developing the coalyard as parking for school buses. It would be wonderful if the City could take the property off their hands and finally do something with it.”

That boat may have already sailed.

Dylan Walsh

Dylan Walsh graduated from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies in 2011 where he studied environmental communication. He is an Editor at The Solutions Journal and a freelance science/environment writer.

More Posts


  1. Pingback: Complications with English « Dylan Walsh

  2. I definitely wanted to develop a quick remark so as to express gratitude to you for these marvelous facts you are sharing at this website. My time-consuming internet search has at the end been paid with useful information to write about with my companions. I ‘d repeat that we visitors actually are truly lucky to be in a magnificent network with many marvellous people with useful techniques. I feel very much lucky to have come across your entire web site and look forward to really more thrilling moments reading here. Thank you again for everything.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *