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


Almost a century ago, on December 15, 1911, one hundred visiting businessmen filed from dinner at the Quinnipiack Club to join ranks with an anxious, boisterous multitude on New Haven’s Old Green. At precisely 7:49 p.m., shortly after coffee and dessert, Mayor Frank J. Rice flicked a silver switch and flooded Church Street with the persistent glow of electric light. The Great White Way, it was called. Thus New Haven became one of America’s brightest cities.

To wild cheering, another switch illuminated a marquee behind the Mayor: Old Elms But New Ideas.

Expansive industrialization in New Haven and Bridgeport spurred Connecticut to the front of the rapidly growing electric industry. United Illuminating, incorporated in 1899 and headquartered in New Haven, grew with this industrialization, barely able to keep pace with demand. James English, of esteemed pedigree, sat at the company’s helm: round-faced, mustachioed, dapper. He was a wealthy man, in part due to position, in part due to an obsessive parsimony evident in letters to both creditors and debtors. As the industry roared, English built plants.

Neighbors of these new facilities complained about the constant vibration from massive dynamos. A continuous mist, as if the plants generated their own weather, billowed from flues and sank to street-level. Soot and coal smoke hovered like night. It was the turn of the twentieth century. The people spoke out, wrote letters voluminously, rallied for cleaner conditions. James English continued to build plants.

Ground was broken for English Station in July 1927—a plant to honor the patriarch. UI purchased General Electric’s most efficient generators for the new plant, and in May of 1929 the first unit was fired. Located on an island in the Mill River, colliers chugged directly to the west bank where an electric crane offloaded coal to crushers and a storage yard.

The architecture was a glorious 280,000 square feet of heavyset, clean brick bulk—cathedral-like. Four smokestacks of nearly 300 feet towered over the water. Payson Jones, writing for The Financial Survey in 1929, described its “appeal to the eye as well as the cash box…Even disregarding the aesthetic standpoint,” he continued, “a beautifully designed station develops a community goodwill toward its operation the value of which is not easily measured.”

English Station neighbored two other power plants, one to the north and one over the river to the east. Transformers and machinery hummed. “The station’s entire background,” Jones noted, “is one suggestive of power.”

Today, the old Simkins plant has been demolished. Brick rubble covers the lot; the constellations of shattered glass scintillate. A fenced-off set of transformers across from English Station still transmits through high-voltage lines. English Station is inaccessible. The rusted metal gateways are padlocked with thick chainlink loops. In wind, the massive doors creak in and out. Across the river an imposing mound lies under black tarpaulin and tires grid the surface. Behind this hill is the John Martinez elementary school and its playground.

Asnat Realty holds a 99-year lease. As long as they want the island, and as long as they can afford the island, they will have rights to the island.

The Mill River is an industrial artery running to New Haven Harbor, where oil containers line the shore in their earthen nests and the huge white flue of the New Haven Harbor Plant and the smaller darker flue of the city waste incinerator fix clean lines against the sky. The rotor of a single wind turbine, installed and operated by Phoenix Press, slices air on gusty days.

For Curt Johnson, the talk of English Station brought to mind another recent victory, this one against the Public Service Enterprise Group, owners and operators of the Harbor Plant. In January 2010, the East Haven and Fair Haven communities secured a compensatory agreement for $500,000 in return for the planned construction of a small new supplemental natural gas plant in their neighborhood. Thoughts of this case inspired in Johnson a small epiphany: “You know, it really comes full circle,” he said. “If you look at English Station, that whole thing started in about 2001. Now, in 2010, we have this victory against PSEG with clean-burning gas turbines and a half-million dollar settlement for the community.” Curt pointed to his map with its transparencies. “So it was nine years between turning down an environmentally devastating project and having an environmentally neutral, even beneficial, one take its place. It might appear technically complex, and in ways it is, but the fact remains that we can produce more power while cleaning the air for those who already suffer. This is an infinitely doable project if we, the City, and DEP are on the same page and working within the same constraints. If we’re installing more power, we must demand cleaner air.”

From avoiding devastation to promoting benefit in only nine years. “Nine short years,” Johnson reiterated.

But go back ten years, not nine, and it seems the same opportunity presented itself with Quinnipiac Energy’s natural gas cogeneration plant, only the City and the DEP and the activists and the investors were all on different pages.

“I had the idea as young person that you could create unity, solve problems,” Miniberg explained at the end of a long and winding conversation. “In politics—I thought the whole process had enough integrity to work, to create better situations. This ideal was underlying the whole English Station plan.”

But the experience in 2001 broke him. “I couldn’t believe the way society was being played by individuals. I would ask the environmental justice folks, ‘Don’t you realize the air will be cleaner after the project?’ And I would turn to the politicians: ‘Don’t you want to hear about this plan, to go into the community and heal the rift that exists?’” Mininberg and I were talking on the phone. He must have been shaking his head sadly back and forth. I could feel it. “The expediency of the moment always trumped the greater good.”

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 *