Transformer Malfunction Blasts Blue Rays Across the Boroughs

The Not So Simple Story of Last Night's Bright Blue Light Over Astoria

Updated 12 weeks ago David Stone
The Not So Simple Story of Last Night's Bright Blue Light Over Astoria

Outside our windows, intense flashes transformed Yorkville's riverside towers into an intermittently eerie dreamscape. Curiosity forced us to abandon an after dinner wine and chat and join our neighbors at a communal window in our hallway. Briefly spectacular, the event opened the door on a larger story that needs to be told.

"There was a boom; then a hum. The lights flickered. A giant plume of smoke filled the New York City sky, and turned it blue," the New York Times reported.

By the time my wife and I got to the window, the blue rays resolved into a whitish fireball visible beyond the RFK/Triborough Bridge, and before I could get back with a camera, it went down "like somebody flipped a switch," my wife said.

A neighbor came out with an image captured on his cellphone.

The emergency passed almost as quickly as it began. But what was it?

Immediate worries were about a plane crash near LaGuardia. Reportedly, the strange blue radiance brought fears from many of an alien invasion.

It was neither.

On Twitter, Con Edison described it as “a brief electrical fire” at one of its substations in Astoria, “which involved some electrical transformers and caused a transmission dip in the area.”

There were no injuries.

But that's where the story gets murkier.

State Senator-elect Jessica Ramos, who rushed to the scene told Huff Post that FDNY tests showed the air was safe to breathe, but there was an ominous note.

"The plant burns more than 3 million gallons of No. 6 fuel oil a year, making it one of New York’s dirtiest power stations," Huff Post reported. 

This pulls back the cover on New York City's over-dependence on fossil fuels.

No. 6 fuel oil is a dense fluid with a viscosity more like tar. When I managed a facility as stationary engineer, cleaning out the sludge from our storage tank after a season's use was a learning experience. It was so thick, our boiler was outfitted with an atomizer necessary to get it to burn off a pilot.

No. 6 is not just the cheapest but also the most polluting, earning western Queens the title of Asthma Alley.

Of interest to Roosevelt Islanders, the only dirtier power plant is right across the East River. Ravenswood burns even more No. 6 fuel oil than Astoria.

It's something to think about now that this incident flashed a bright blue light on the issues.


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