Chunks of metal lie like carcasses on the grimy floor, and rust grows like mold on pipes in English Station, a non-operational coal and oil power plant sitting on a man-made dredge island in the middle of the Mill River. On October 2, New Haven resident Chris Randall ventured into its depths and returned with photographic evidence of a surreal landscape.
“It’s kind of like a ghost,” Randall said. While exploring the site, he imagined what it would have been like for people to work at the plant. It must have been noisy—not like the dusty silence he experienced. “I can’t go into a place like that and not try to envision what it was like when it was at its capacity,” he said.
Few have seen English Station’s interior for the past ten months; the property is contaminated with dangerous amounts of asbestos and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and no work is being done to remediate the site due to a cease and desist order issued by the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP).
Randall has lived on Lyon Street, about a mile away from the site, since 2000. He is the executive director of New Haven Land Trust, and he runs a photography blog, “I Love New Haven,” with 2011 New Haven mayoral candidate Jeffrey Kerekes. He posted a set of photos under the title “English Station Invasion (Part II)” in early October, and the New Haven Independent published six of those the next day. The newspaper had run photographs from his first expedition into English Station in March.
The trip into the station was motivated in part by a desire to expose its innards to the general public and in part by his curiosity. “I wanted to see what it looks like,” Randall said. “This place is a big part of our historical narrative and we deserve the right to see what it looks like.”
A few days after he posted the pictures, he received an email from Lori Saliby, a supervising environmental analyst at DEEP. Saliby works with the DEEP’s storage tank and PCB enforcement unit.
“Well, shit, I must be in trouble now,” Randall remembered thinking.
Luckily for Randall, he wasn’t in trouble, at least not with the government. His health, however, might be in danger. When they spoke over the phone about his visit, Saliby said she told Randall that he had potentially contaminated himself and his companions, and that he may have transferred contamination off the site. Randall said she seemed concerned about his safety.
Randall was not as concerned. “I guess that’s a risk I took,” he said. “Hopefully nothing happens.” The owners, however, don’t share his nonchalance.
“What he did was foolish, what he did was dangerous,” Uri Kaufman, real estate developer and consultant to the owners, said. “It was dangerous to him, [and] it was dangerous to others.”
Kaufman told me that the owners filed a criminal complaint against Randall for trespassing on the property. Randall said that he was unaware of any such action.
English Station’s complicated history of ownership and contamination includes battles between owners and local environmental organizations, cleanup attempts that have spiraled into stagnation, and an overall lack of access to basic knowledge of the situation.
Local residents are unable to navigate the bureaucratic mess, leaving them unaware of risks presented to public health and local environment, especially as scavengers distribute contaminated materials from the site. The site’s potential hazards loom, but little is being done.
Currently, English Station is off limits to its owners and their contractors because of the DEEP’s cease and desist order, issued in February. The DEEP is currently waiting for John Insall, who works with Stantec, a professional consulting service, to draw up a remedial action plan, Kaufman said. Kaufman said that the owners eventually want to redevelop the building, but declined to give specific information.
Most recently, English Station has been in the news because 24-year-old New Haven resident Sammy Gonzalez was arrested after being electrocuted when he cut through a power line at a United Illuminating substation at English Station. Even though English Station is no longer producing electricity, there is still an operational substation on the property. Roughly three thousand residents of East Rock were without power for three hours on November 29, and Gonzalez faces many criminal charges.
Dave Hartman, public information officer of the New Haven police department (NHPD), said that there is an ongoing investigation and that a motive has not been identified. According to an NHPD press release, Gonzalez “faces several criminal charges including burglary, criminal attempt to commit larceny and breach of peace in the first degree for the service interruption.”
Hartman said that Gonzalez is in critical condition, and is being treated for burns from electrocution. He said that, given the difficulty of accessing burn victims, it would be a while before they can establish a motive. The interview process has not yet begun.
However, Hartman speculated about what Gonzalez’s intentions might have been. He said that it might have been one of three things: “stupidity at the grandest level, an attempt at sabotage…[or] the theft of copper.”
In the ‘90s, while working as a freelance photographer for UI, Harold Shapiro photographed English Station when one of the turbines was being dismantled for cleaning. Shapiro is the head of the photo department at Creative Arts Workshop on Audubon Street, a community art school in New Haven. An associate fellow in Jonathan Edwards College, Shapiro has worked as a full-time photographer since 1981, and started doing freelance work for UI in 1989. Shapiro photographed for internal publications and captured some images of the interior of the power plant. At the time, UI owned English Station, which it built in the late 1920s.
Ever since he was a child, Shapiro loved lighting and electricity. He was naturally attracted to power plants, which produced both.
“While I was taking pictures of that I was able to explore the cavernous beauty of the space,” Shapiro said. He was fascinated by the “accidental beauty” of the pipes and metal structures. “I also play woodwind instruments,” Shapiro said, “and the beautiful shape of the saxophone and flute…are reminiscent a little bit to me in the power plant.”
Shapiro’s photographs, in contrast to Randall’s, are mostly sharp and clean. They depict an English Station that is an object of industrial strength and power, not of decay. The plant was about to go offline.
In 1992, UI stopped power production at English Station and mothballed the plant, shutting it down in a manner that would make it easy to restart in the future. It is unclear why UI shut down the power plant—local activists said that it was because the plant was inefficient, and UI declined to comment for this story.
UI transferred English Station in 2000, with about $4 million for remediation, to Quinnipiac Energy, LLC (QE). QE acquired English Station with the intention of opening it as a peaking plant, which meant that it would only generate power during times of peak demand like the summer months when air conditioning use was especially high.
The New Haven Environmental Justice Network (EJN) was formed in response to QE’s application, said Mark Mitchell, founder of the EJN. The EJN took issue with QE’s plan, since it would provide power to Fairfield County, which is in the 94th percentile of median household income according to recent census data, at the expense of polluting the low-income neighborhood of Fair Haven.
It would have been especially harmful for residents living in nearby public housing facilities, such as Farnam Courts, which is less than half a mile west of English Station. “They’re not allowed to have air conditioning in their units,” Mitchell said. “So they have to open the windows and get more of the pollution so that people in those suburbs can have air conditioning and not have to breathe the pollution.”
The DEP, an earlier form of DEEP, nearly granted the request. Perhaps it was a final review of the case, and perhaps it was fear of a lawsuit from then Attorney General of Connecticut and current US Senator for Connecticut Richard Blumenthal, who opposed the reopening of English Station. At the end of the day, in 2003, then DEP Commissioner Arthur Rocque overturned his staff’s recommendation to grant QE the permit.
Three years later, QE sold the property to Evergreen Power, LLC and Asnat Realty, LLC. Kaufman is a consultant to both of them. Both are managed by Mehboob Shah, who lives in Hamden, according to the commercial recording division of the Secretary of State of Connecticut. Shah did not return phone calls requesting comment. According to the lawyer who represented the company, QE is now defunct.
The current owners have held the property since 2006, and, in the past six years, have made various attempts to remediate it. Most recently, they have been working with the contractor Grant Mackay Company, Inc. (GMC) to remediate the asbestos at the site. GMC started work in the summer of 2011, and worked up until the cease and desist order in February 2012.
Piecing together what happened between the summer of 2011 and February 2012 was difficult. Everyone I talked to gave me a slightly different story, and I felt like the arbiter of an ongoing dispute, one in which it was impossible to differentiate fact from fiction or appearance from reality.
Domingo Medina, a 12-year resident of East Rock and immigrant from Venezuela, has frequently photographed English Station. He writes grants for and works with indigenous group in Venezuela, and also photographs non-professionally. He took a particular photograph I saw, taken in February 2011 on a foggy morning. In the foreground, wooden docks float in focus on the gently rippling water. Power lines run from the upper-left corner of the photograph into the center, where they fade into a mass of fog, through which English Station’s stacks are barely visible.
When Joe McAllister got the news that the DEEP had issued a cease and desist order for Grant Mackay Company’s project at English Station, he traveled to Connecticut immediately. McAllister has been working for GMC for four years, and took his current position as general counsel in the summer of 2012. He describes himself as “the emergency guy.”
The cease and desist order “was a complete shock,” McAllister said. To this day, he continued, nobody from the DEEP has explained why the order was issued.
When I relayed this to Saliby, she responded, “Well, that’s a complete shock to me.” She said that she met with McAllister and engaged in many phone calls after the issuance of the order.
McAllister and Kaufman agree that GMC was hired and began its work in the summer of 2011. The original contract was for GMC to perform a demolition and to abate the asbestos. They would “make it a level, flat island, like there hadn’t been a building sitting there,” McAllister said.
Kaufman later requested a change to the contract. Both hold the change came before the cease and desist order was issued by DEEP on February 8, 2012.
Kaufman sought to modify the contract and add an option for Asnat and Evergreen to decide, if they wanted to, to change the work plan from a full demolition to an interior demolition. An interior demolition would entail removing non-structural metal, but would keep the building standing. In order for the owners to act on this option, they would need to pay GMC an extra $850,000 in cash. Barring the exercise of this option, GMC would proceed with the original plan and demolish the building.
Kaufman said that the application for the demolition permit was filed so that the owners would have the option to knock down the building if they wanted to. He said that, at the time the owners filed the application, they had not made up their mind about the fate of the building. It would be months before GMC finished the asbestos abatement and would be ready to commence demolition, if the owners desired it. But they were nowhere close to carrying out the action.
“It would be a shame if the cease and desist order were issued based upon a mistaken assumption that the building was slated for demolition,” Kaufman continued.
Kaufman said that the decision to demolish either the interior or exterior of the building could have gone either way, but that it was dependent on the city approving the demolition permit. President of the New Haven Urban Design League, Anstress Farwell, said that since English Station is listed in the local historic resource inventory, the submission of the demolition permit triggered a ninety-day delay of demolition ordinance process. If a demolition permit is filed for any building listed in the local historic resource inventory, the state register of historic places, or the national register of historic places, ninety days must pass before the demolition permit may be granted.
“The whole purpose is not simply to delay someone for ninety days, but to create a period of time when you can hopefully and reasonably seek out alternatives to demolition,” Farwell said.
The filing of the demolition order set off a chain reaction. Over the next three months, Farwell gathered her forces, contacting partner organizations like the EJN and the New Haven Preservation Trust. They contacted city officials and helped coordinate the appointment of Robert Smuts ‘01, chief administrative officer in New Haven, as the point person for the English Station at the city level so that someone could coordinate the response across the relevant departments.
The goal? “Get the site cleaned up and preserve the building,” Farwell said.
The City of New Haven never approved any demolition permits for English Station, said Andrew Rizzo, a building official with the City of New Haven.
It is likely that this chain reaction made it all the way up to the DEEP. Saliby said that GMC’s demolition application triggered the order, and that DEEP received documents submitted by representatives of the property to the City of New Haven that described the methods of demolition. Saliby didn’t know how these documents came to the DEEP, but she did know one thing – they specified that the demolition would be an implosion.
“If this site was not cleaned up and you implode the building, then all the contaminated debris, just like in the films at 9/11 with the dust cloud coming down the street…is going to fly all over the neighborhood and the river,” Saliby explained.
McAllister argued that GMC had not decided on an implosion, calling Saliby’s fear a “red herring.” Furthermore, the application for the permit to demolish, filed in Rizzo’s office, did not make any mention of methods for demolition.
“The cease and desist order is a solution looking for a problem,” McAllister said.
A hearing pertaining to the cease and desist order was held by DEEP on October 1 at which Attorney Alan Kosloff, counsel for the owners, did not contest the order. Because the owners were unable to provide GMC with access to the property, the contract is terminated, as far as GMC is concerned, said McAllister. However, GMC is continuing to be involved in the situation only to the extent necessary to retrieve its equipment from the property. The company continues to pay $20,000 a month in rental fees for equipment that is sitting on the site. McAllister estimated that the company has lost over $3 million since July 2011.
Kaufman said that the owners have filed a lawsuit this November against GMC, believing the company to be in default of the contract.
“They have a responsibility,” Kaufman said. “They don’t have the right to walk away from this.”
Insall is working on a remediation plan to submit to the DEEP. Kaufman said that the goal of the plan that Insall is working on is to clean up the PCBs in the soil, and also to get permission for the owners to return to the site to finish the asbestos abatement.
McAllister made it clear that GMC would not be returning to the site, regardless of the owners’ plan.
“Grant Mackay will never do work on that site again,” McAllister said. “Or for that owner. Or in the state of Connecticut. All three.”
On a Monday afternoon last month, I was walking with the area with Randall, the photographer. At around 2:30 p.m., I turned and saw two men close the trunk of a car that was parked at the gate in front of English Station. Lines of barbed wire ran above metal sheets a few feet taller than myself, and signs on the sheets warded off trespassers. In a small public gravel lot between the site’s gate and Grand Avenue, two men jumped into a Lexus SUV, and the driver started pulling into the road.
I ran and tried to flag the car down. The passenger opened the window, but when I began to introduce myself, rolled the window up as the car sped away.
Randall said that he recognized one of the men. When Randall had been inside English Station, Randall had seen one of the men scavenging five pounds of copper. At the time, he told Randall it was “so he could eat.”
With the cease and desist order, there is limited security at the site, leading to increased scavenging of raw materials. Some of the scavenging has been legitimate, conducted under the approval of the owners, while some of it is not.
Brendan Regan has been the owner of Regan Metals, a scrap metal company less than a mile away from English Station, for the past thirty years. The 125-year old company was hired by QE to take scrap out of the site between 2003 and 2005. Regan described the situation at English Station at the time as “weird” and “bizarre.”
Many people claimed that they owned the property, Regan said. QE would grant his company permission to scrap at the site, and then other people would arrive, claim they were the owners, and tell Regan Metals that they were not allowed to collect scrap metal. One time, some people who claimed they were the owners attempted to take some of the generators out of the plant. “[They were] going to take the big giant generators in there and ship them off to Africa,” Regan said. His reaction to the situation: “Ok, let’s just get the hell out of here.”
While Regan’s company was working to collect scrap metal at the site, they would often see or hear evidence of scavengers. Kicked down doors lay flat on the floor and windows and locks were broken. Other times, they would hear foreign noises while doing their work; noises came from other sections of the building and gave away the presence of people who were not supposed to be there.
“People would break into that building every single week,” Regan said. “They’re still breaking in there today.”
On the afternoon I visited, the men I saw might have been scavenging, but neither Randall nor I could see. A trespasser was arrested in October. While these two incidences might not have involved stealing scrap theft, those who do scavenge play an important role at the English Station. Not only are they trespassing on the site, stealing scrap metal and financially damaging the owners, but they also may be harming themselves through exposure to asbestos and PCBs, and spreading PCB contamination in the community.
Saliby said exposure to PCBs is associated with reproductive disorders, infertility, small head circumference in newborns, neurological problems such as ADHD, and cancer, specifically tumors of the thyroid, liver, and kidneys. It is unclear how much exposure the surrounding neighborhoods experience. The PCBs at the English Station won’t go anywhere unless they are moved by a disturbance. Trespassing, she explained, therefore creates a problem for local residents.
She added, “It is possible for contamination from the site to migrate to nearby surface water as well as groundwater.”
McAllister told me that asbestos-related dangers to those who enter the plant have been compounded by the scavenging activity. When people remove metal from English Station, they might also rip into the insulation, which releases asbestos, he said, freeing it into the air where it can be breathed.
Even before GMC came on the scene, scavengers caused asbestos problems. Regan said that, although the boiler house, which was filled with asbestos, was locked, people would often break into it, and his company would have go in to secure the room. “It looked like a winter wonderland. It was freaky, man. The stuff was just hanging from the ceiling.”
Kosloff said that his clients are working with DEEP to develop a site security plan, which is in progress.
Saliby detailed some of the security measures currently in place. They include a locked gate, barbed wire, razor wire, large warning sings about PCBs, and a surveillance camera. These are not associated with the plan that Kosloff mentioned.
In addition to harming themselves and possibly their community, scavengers are taking income from whoever cleans up this site. Remediation of sites like English Station is paid for in part by selling some of the material on the site for scrap. Scavengers stealing metal make it less financially viable for a contractor to clean up the site, since they reduce the amount of metal available to sell for scrap and cover the cost of remediation. McAllister is also worried that GMC’s tools and equipment, which it has not been able to access since the cease and desist order was served in February, may be—or have already been—vandalized or stolen. The contamination poses a danger for many parties involved, but it seems only a major act of intervention can completely solve it.
English Station is one of more than 284 brownfield sites in Connecticut, according to DEEP as of October 2011. A brownfield, according to the website of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, is “an abandoned, idled, or underused property where expansion or redevelopment is complicated by the presence or potential presence of contamination.” The Government Accountability Office estimates that as many as 425,000 brownfields exist in the US.
Redeveloping brownfields can provide economic benefits. According to the website of the EPA, brownfield redevelopment has created over 5,500 jobs in the 2012 fiscal year alone. To that extent, New Haven sees English Station as an economic opportunity.
New Haven has partnered with a local economic development organization to facilitate economic growth along the Mill River. The city may be interested in including English Station in specific plans in the future, said Tony Bialecki, deputy economic development director for the City of New Haven. However, because of the current environmental issues, the city has not been able to develop a strategy for addressing it.
Preserving the building as a historic site might also be economically beneficial. John Herzan, preservation services officer for the New Haven Preservation Trust, said that he hopes English Station can be placed on the national register of historic places. “We hope that this designation would provide economic incentives for reusing the building rather than demolishing it,” he said.
Residents would also like to see English Station brought back to life. Aaron Goode, who is on the steering committee of the EJN, said that English Station “fell on hard times, like the rest of New Haven. I sincerely hope that it can also be part of New Haven’s renaissance.”
But he qualified that statement, adding that this is possible “if we do the right kind of intervention.”
The first time Randall entered English Station, he wanted to get onto the roof. He went up with a friend, and took some sunset pictures.
As it got dark, Randall decided that it was time to come down. But he couldn’t find the way out.
“There’s really no logical sequence to get from one floor to another,” Randall said, speaking about one particular section of the building. “I was using my flash as a strobe to see. It took us forty-five minutes but we found our way out.”
Randall is lucky that it only took him minutes to get out; it’s taken me on the order of a hundred hours (and nearly as many phone calls), and I still haven’t found my way out. Some of the other actors haven’t been able to get out for years and years. The current owners have held the property the six years and counting, and residents have been saddled with the toxic site for much longer.
The toxicity of the site comes not only from its physical contaminants. The property is also contaminated with rumors that have been accepted as truth, a history of miscommunication, and a general lack of accurate information. Confusion amongst the official actors – the local, city, state, and private entities – trickles down, leaving the public puzzled and therefore frustrated. The complicated interplay between actors leaves nobody with a complete and accurate picture of the situation.
With his DSLR camera, Randall captured several different exposures of the same scene using slightly different settings. He then layered the photos on top of each other using a digital image editing program, with a process called high dynamic range imaging.
“You’re basically able to emphasize or deemphasize certain components or features of those exposures in the final image,” Randall said.
“I guess it’s a philosophical thing whether or not that’s an actual representation of reality or not,” Randall said. “To me, it is. To me, the process adds something that wasn’t there. To me, it almost makes it look more real.”
Randall’s photographs depict English Station as a dilapidated industrial graveyard and Shapiro’s photographs show a once clean building. Just as it is hard to believe that they were photographing the same building, different people tell me stories that, while not necessarily opposing, appear to contradict each other.
Randall’s photographs present an eerie, unsettling view of reality. But, as McAllister and Regan described, English Station was not what it first appeared to them to be.