FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
The Council of the City of New York
Council Member Costa Constantinides, District 22
June 10, 2019
Contact: Terence Cullen
Three Bills Would Lay Groundwork for Renewable Energy, Wastewater Treatment on the Island
Astoria, NY — Council Member Costa Constantinides, Chair of the Committee on Environmental Protection, joined with environmental leaders and criminal justice reform advocates in western Queens today to announce a three-bill legislative package to transform Rikers Island into a model for green infrastructure.
The Renewable Rikers Act, co-sponsored by Council Members Helen Rosenthal and Ben Kallos, will be introduced at Thursday’s City Council meeting. If passed, the legislation would begin the process of creating renewable energy on Rikers Island as well as replacing wastewater treatment facilities that currently blight low-income neighborhoods and communities of color.
“For generations, Rikers Island has been a place of despair for many New Yorkers caught up in a fractured criminal justice system,” said Council Member Costa Constantinides, whose district includes Rikers Island. “These bills are a downpayment for a brighter future for this island — one that actually serves New York communities instead of tearing them apart. As we made the bold decision to close these jails, we must be as courageous in making this type of investment in a Renewable Rikers.”
“As New York City prepares to shut down its facilities on Rikers Island and make the long overdue transition to a more humane criminal justice approach, we have an opportunity to advance environmental justice as well. Council Member Constantinides’ legislation will create significant solar energy capacity, and help pave the way for the closure of local fossil fuel-based power plants and wastewater treatment facilities – a victory for our communities and the battle against climate change. I am proud to co-sponsor these bills with Council Member Constantinides and thank him for his ongoing leadership,” said Council Member Helen Rosenthal (Manhattan, District 6).
“By doing the right thing in closing Rikers Island, New York City has given itself a once in a generation opportunity to build for the city of the future, and we must take this opportunity to build a model of green infrastructure for cities around the world,” said Council Member Ben Kallos. “The Renewable Rikers Act is a chance for Rikers Island to step into a new stage in its history. Whether through solar farming or moving waste treatment plants to Rikers Island, the Renewable Rikers Act will put New York City in a position to adapt to a changing climate. Thank you to Council Member Costa Constantinides for having the courage and commitment to author and push this package of legislation.”
The Renewable Rikers Act is centered around a bill transferring control of the island from the New York City Department of Correction to the New York City Department of Environmental Protection — guaranteeing this land is never used for jails again. A second piece of legislation requires the City to determine renewable energy capacity on the island, while a third bill will assess how much wastewater can be diverted to the island — potentially closing several aging facilities in northern Queens, the South Bronx, and Upper Manhattan. Shutting down these plants potentially frees up hundreds of publicly owned acres for community use.
This type of investment would also help New York City reach its 1,000 megawatt solar capacity pledge by 2030, which is enough energy to power 250,000 homes. It would also supplement new renewable energy demands created under the Climate Mobilization Act — a massive carbon reduction package overwhelmingly passed by the City Council 45-2 in April. And it would open up new opportunities in low-income and minority communities, who for too long have carried the environmental burden of powering New York City.
“This legislation is a breath of fresh air. Rikers Island is known for its destructive impact on the lives of minority communities, but we have an opportunity to change that legacy. With the Renewable Rikers Act, we can mitigate the pollution in our working class neighborhoods and transform Rikers Island into a green hub. I am proud to support this innovative legislation on the state level. Thank you Council Member Constantinides for being an agent of change who mobilizes and empowers New Yorkers to reshape the city we know and love. It is this kind of thinking that we need to move our beloved city forward,” said Assemblymember Aravella Simotas.
“The closing of Rikers gives New York City an opportunity to pursue an economic vision that moves us away from private utilities and toward a public, renewable energy sector with thousands of good green jobs,” said Maritza Silva-Farrell, Executive Director of ALIGN. “We look forward to working with Council Member Costa Constantinides to determine the best path we can take to reshape Rikers into an island that contributes to a just, sustainable New York, particularly for communities of color and for the formerly incarcerated who have been so negatively impacted by the Rikers Island Prison Complex.”
“We are deeply grateful to Council Member Constantinides, and are in strong support of the Renewable Rikers Act. Transferring control of the land from the New York City Department of Corrections to the New York City Department of Environmental Protection will ensure that Rikers Island will never be used for jails again. The Renewable Rikers Act has the potential to divert wastewater to the island, freeing up hundreds of publicly owned acres across New York City for community use. A mere 100 of the 413 acres of land would allow our city to close every secondary power plant built over the past 20 years, the vast majority of which are located in low-income and minority communities throughout New York City; the same communities that are in dire need of investments in schools, youth centers, mental health treatment programs, etc. The Renewable Rikers Act aligns perfectly with advocates’ (and the Mayor’s) decarceration plan to close the Rikers Island jail complex, and divest from institutions of oppression and invest in communities. As people directly impacted by the current punitive justice system, we must stand together in solidarity to support the Renewable Rikers Act, and decarcerate New York City so that we can work towards a future of accountability and transparency as opposed to dehumanization and incarceration. Through the collective leadership efforts of nonprofit organizations, activists and city government, we will transform our justice system into one that is safe, humane, and fair for all New Yorkers,” said Kandra Clark, Associate Vice President of Strategy, Exodus Transitional Community.
“New York has the opportunity to take this transformative moment for criminal justice in NYC, and to leverage it into a wider social justice transformation focused on sustainability,” said Professor Rebecca Bratspies, Founding Director for CUNY Law School’s Center for Urban Environmental Reform.
“The #CLOSErikers campaign has fought for New York City to achieve historic decarceration. New York City is putting human beings in peril every day that Rikers stays open. The fact that Rikers today is such an environmental disaster – is reason enough to close it. The campaign to #CLOSErikers supports Renewable Rikers legislation championed by Council Member Costa Constantinides, including 2 bills which would produce studies on the cost of a solar farm and moving waste treatment plants to the island to reduce exposure to communities; and a bill that would transfer the Rikers deed from the Department of Corrections to the Department of Environmental Protection, allowing the for the conversion of structures to sustainable uses once the number of people held is reduced to 5,500. The #CLOSErikers campaign believes we can decarcerate to less than 3,000 people in the near future. Our plan is to shrink the system, decarcerate New York City, and #buildCOMMUNITIES. Achieving a Renewable Rikers would be another historic effort we can all be proud of and it would help build our communities in ways that would achieve environmental justice. Additionally, we support the creation of good, safe, green jobs that will promote environmental justice – without any barriers to people with conviction records,” said #CLOSErikers Campaign Leader Marco Barrios.
New York City has committed to closing the crumbling facilities on Rikers Island by 2027, though a drop in the municipal jail population could speed up that timeline. The Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform’s A More Just NYC suggested critical environmental infrastructure might be the best use for this 413-acre island once those facilities shutter. Constantinides partnered with the CUNY Law School’s Center for Urban Environmental Reform to expand on the Commission’s suggestion. Prof. Rebecca Bratspies, Founding Director of CUER, estimated using 100 acres of the land for solar energy can justify closing every secondary power plant built in the last two decades.
Constantinides and other advocates have argued a Renewable Rikers is the best use for the land given its own precarious environmental issues. Because the island is mostly landfill from ash and garbage, methane leaks are a persistent problem. Former Rikers employees have attributed health problems to gas seeping from the toxic soil, while collapsing methane pockets have disrupted the foundation of already crumbling jails.
Council Member Costa Constantinides represents the New York City Council’s 22nd District, which includes his native Astoria along with parts of Woodside, East Elmhurst, and Jackson Heights. He serves as the chair of the City Council’s Environmental Protection Committee and sits on four additional committees: Sanitation, Resiliency, and Land Use, as well as the sub-committee on Zoning and Franchises. For more information, visit council.nyc.gov/costa.