By Sophia A. Niarchos
OYSTER BAY, N.Y.- It took two years to get it through, but New York State Assemblyman Michael Gianaris is pleased with the power plant security legislation that was unanimously passed by the legislature on June 19.
“We’ve achieved passage of the first major anti-terror legislation since the World Trade Center attacks,” said Gianaris. “I am hopeful that the governor will now sign this important security measure into law.”
The final result of negotiations involving the legislature and power plant companies, the bill (A.3102-B) comprises the first anti-terror legislation to pass both state houses since the security of New York’s citizens became a focus of government attention following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. It requires the New York State Director of Public Security to review security measures taken at all power-generating plants, transmission lines and other energy-related facilities in the state.
The main obstacles to its passage were in two areas of concern. The first involved balancing the public’s right to know about vulnerable spots in power plant infrastructure with the need to protect such information from perpetrators of terrorist acts, and a method addressing this issue was developed to the satisfaction of all concerned.
The second involved the power companies’ concern about the original plan to give the state director of public security, a post established after 9/11, the authority to order them to follow the recommendations he is required to make in his review report on the status of security measures at every power plant in the state.
“They were more comfortable with the Public Service Commission having that authority because they are used to working with them,” Gianaris explained, adding that he thought the changes made to the original bill “were reasonable and won’t have any effect on the state’s ability to bring about enhanced security.”
While the state will mandate the security enhancements needed at each power-generating facility, the costs of implementing security at these private facilities – which might include such additions as fences, barriers, security guards, and surveillance cameras – will be borne by the companies that operate them; and, Gianaris said, non-compliance is not an option.
The Public Service Commission will determine which of the costs the companies incur can be passed on to the consumer in the form of higher rates.
“But even if [implementing the recommended measures] affects costs, I don’t expect it to be anything but minimal increases that shouldn’t have a dramatic impact on rates,” the assemblyman said.
Gianaris also noted the initial complaints of power plant companies when the bill was introduced and the “public outcry that gave it momentum and got it voted on.”
“A number of the companies viewed the bill as cutting into their profits and were more concerned about saving a penny for their shareholders than safety,” he said, comparing this attitude to that of the airline industry, which he said “didn’t have foresight to take security under consideration before 9/11 and is suffering a great deal right now.”
Asked about whether the bill sets a precedent for government intervention in other privately owned institutions, such as shopping centers and banks, which, like power plants, have been reported as threatened targets for terrorist attacks, Gianaris said, “I certainly hope so.”
His statement reflects his belief that “this is a new era and requires we take a new, fresh look at how we do things across the board; this legislation is an important first step.”
Gianaris’ opinion differs from that expressed by New York State Senator Frank Balboni, the chair of the newly established Committee on Veterans, Homeland Security and Military Affairs, who said: “It is clear that given finite resources, all potential terrorist targets cannot be protected.”
“We can never guarantee that we can prevent every possible attack,” Gianaris said, “but we can try to take sufficient steps to limit the possibility as much as humanly possible; this legislation will result in enhanced security being provided at some of these sites and to the extent that that is done, we’re reducing the possibility of an attack.”
He added that mandating security measures at other private sites would depend on the individual location and the impact a terrorist attack there would have on the general population.
“Shopping malls should be required to have such measures in place,” he believes, but residents and owners of apartment buildings would have to hold their own discussion about the need for similar requirements on their premises.
Except for the anti-terrorist security efforts of the local police, he decried the lack of “vision and direction toward protecting the citizens of New York,” of the governor’s office, which he said, “has done virtually nothing in the last two years.”
When asked about the opinion of the Natural Resources Defense Council that catastrophic failure of the electricity grid would be difficult for terrorists to bring about because, while a bomb could easily cause a local power failure, as long as utilities keep their stockpiles of repair components up to date, repairing local power failures is business as usual for the utility industry, Gianaris explained that “New York City is very, very dense; and the electricity provided to the city is clustered close together.”
Although he didn’t address the impact of this bill on upstate New York power-generating facilities, he said, “one facility in Astoria produces one-third of New York City’s energy by itself and all the facilities in Western Queens alone produce over 60 percent of the city’s energy; terrorists don’t have to take out thousands of miles of power grids” to have an impact.
Gianaris said there would be no state fiscal implications of this bill because inspectors to verify power plant reports of compliance already exist and the increased security enhancements would not affect power plant profits significantly enough to impact on state tax revenues.
“The only effect would be on electricity rates,” he said, adding that it would likely be minimal.
This year, Gianaris also introduced the Chemical Security Act, a bill similar to the power plant security legislation, which takes the same approach at chemical storage facilities. It faces similar challenges, and negotiations are underway regarding those concerns.
Gianaris, who is expected to run for state attorney-general if, as anticipated, Attorney-General Elliot Spitzer runs for governor, said of the past year that he was “proud we were able to reject the governor’s budget when he proposed cutting $1 billion in education and health aid so that we didn’t have a major disaster” in the state. He also expressed pride in legislation he introduced, which was supported by the governor, “to make sure two widows of paramedics who worked out of Astoria receive death benefits equal to what fire department widows were getting because we need to do what we can to help them move on with their lives as much as possible.”
Explaining why he is interested in the attorney-general post, Gianaris said, “my experience lends itself very much to responsibilities of that office.
“Environmental issues, consumer affairs and homeland security are all things that office is very involved with. I got involved in government to help people as much as I can, and this is a good time to attempt a run.”