Niagara Gazette

February 2, 2014

Group says Covanta's outreach effort not meeting state's environmental justice policy

By Justin Sondel
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — A petition and letter circulated by a Niagara Falls waste-to-energy company has drawn the ire of a group of Niagara County residents.

Amy Witryol of Lewiston and Shirley Hamilton and Chris Kudela of Niagara Falls wrote New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Joseph Martens asking that the agency revisit its approval of Covanta Niagara’s environmental justice outreach plan, a requirement linked to the modification of the company’s air permit which is currently under review for renewal.

“The DEC-approved (environmental justice) Plan required only that Covanta Notice its public meeting in the newspaper,” the residents said in the letter to Martens. “ Therefore, the DEC presumption was that all low-income households had newspaper subscriptions. We disagreed and asked Covanta be required to conduct another meeting and notice the community by flyers or mail.”

Witryol, Hamilton and Kudela argue the company should have been required to send mailings to all residents of the environmental justice area. The company’s Niagara plant sits in a potential environmental justice area with the neighborhoods to the north, east and south also included, according to maps on the DEC’s website and was required to conform to the statutes in the state’s environmental justice policy as a part of the permit renewal process.

Environmental justice areas are determined by a set of criteria based on poverty and minority residency rates calculated using U.S. Census data.

Companies seeking permits to emit or handle pollutants or State Environmental Quality Review approvals within environmental justice areas are required to make extra efforts to educate the community on the nature of their operations or expansions.

Covanta’s air permit requires modification because the company is in the process of installing a new gas boiler and smoke stack, part of a larger project that will include the reopening of a rail spur, a new steam line and other infrastructure projects at the plant.

The Environmental Justice plan approved by the DEC last summer included advertising for and then holding an informational meeting during which company and DEC representatives would be available to answer questions from community members.

The company posted legal notices in advance of the April meeting twice in the Gazette. The three-hour meeting, held at Antonio’s Banquet and Conference Center on Niagara Falls Boulevard, was sparsely attended with Witryol, Kudela and three city officials as the only guests.

The residents’ letter claims that the low attendance is evidence that advertising in newspapers should not meet standards outlined in the DEC’s environmental justice guidelines.

The DEC’s response to that complaint — the agency said it was holding Covanta to the same standards as other companies — only demonstrates a larger problem with the agency’s handling of its own environmental justice policy, the residents said in the letter.

“This suggest a broader failure by DEC to implement the intent of state and federal Environmental Justice policies,” according to the letter.

Emily DeSantis, the DEC’s director of media relations, responded to the letter with an emailed statement to the Gazette.

“DEC takes environmental justice concerns very seriously. We will carefully review the letter and respond appropriately,” DeSantis said in the email.

Witryol, Hamilton and Kudela also take exception to the contents of the petition and attached letter circulated by the company.

The petition and attached materials discuss;

• The company’s expansion plans and the associated projected job creation and retention. The company lists the 23 projected jobs to be created at the plant as outlined in its application to the Niagara County Industrial Development Agency - Covanta was granted an $8 million tax break from the agency for the expansion project last January - and the 160 construction jobs projected to be created during the construction work. James Regan, a Covanta spokesperson, said the company expects to meet those job projections despite scaling back the expansion project. The company has since decided not to build a special waste handling facility that was in the original plans. Covanta estimated that seven of the permanent jobs at the plant would be linked to the waste handling facility, according to the application to the IDA.

• The company’s supply of steam energy to nearby plants, which the letter says supports 600 jobs at those factories.

• Covanta’s philanthropic efforts in the city which include donations to the Niagara PAL Scholarship Fund, the United Way of Greater Niagara and the improvement of park space in the LaSalle neighborhood. The company also paid more than $150,000 to help neighbors take care of a rat infestation that was likely caused by road construction work on Buffalo Avenue last year.

• The estimated $30 million worth of infrastructure investment for the expansion project. Regan said that estimate remains the same despite the scaling back of the project. The company estimated that the special waste handling facility would cost $5.6 million in its application to the IDA.

• Covanta’s approximate $1.2 million annual tax bill.

The letter to Martens also points to details of circulated materials the Witryol, Hamilton and Kudela find misleading including;

• The omission of the company’s contract with the with the New York City Department of Sanitation, signed this summer, in which Covanta is obligated to accept approximately 1 million tons of municipal waste. The waste will be split between the Niagara Falls plant and a plant in Chester, P.A., about 20 miles southwest of Philidelphia, according to the contract. The agreement has a term of 20 years with an option for two five-year extensions. The waste would arrive by rail, meaning that the rail spur portion of the expansion is necessary for the company to fulfill its obligation.

• The omission of the burning of waste at the facility, one of the processes by which they create energy for their customers.

• The assertion that waste-to energy facilities create “clean energy.” While waste-to-energy facilities qualify as renewable energy in some states and are eligible for some renewable energy tax credits from the Environmental Protection Agency they do not qualify for similar tax credits in New York state. The letter also cites documents from Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s office that say waste-to-energy facilities do not qualify as “Renewable Portfolio Standard.”

Regan said the accusations made in the letter are unfair.

Although there were few people at the environmental justice meeting in April, the company has continued to make efforts to engage the community, distributing other literature and sending employees out into the neighborhood to go door-to-door.

“We’ve had hundreds of conversations with or neighbors in the last few months,” Regan said.

The petition - a form letter of support urging “all local and state elected officials, and all local,state and federal permitting bodies or regulatory agencies to approve these projects as soon as possible” — also included a space for residents to express any concerns or questions they might have.

“The letter closed with a feedback form that allowed our neighbors to communicate directly with us,” Regan said in an email response. “The petition was included after speaking with many neighbors who wanted to register their support for Covanta and our facility.”

Regan also took exception with the characterization of the plant as an incinerator, saying that the plant does much more than burn garbage as a form of disposal.

The facility creates energy from that waste and has technology that traps pollutants created during the process, Regan added.

“Regarding emissions, our facility performs very well,” Regan said during a phone interview Friday.

The Niagara facility has not been cited by the DEC or EPA for exceeding emissions regulations.

Regan said the company is proud of its emissions record.

“We conform with all the state and federal regulations for testing,” Regan said.

Witryol said the information omitted in the circulated materials is the information that is most critical to the residents being asked to give their support to the project in signing the petition during a phone interview Friday.

“Anyone signing that petition based on the information in the mailer doesn’t know what they are signing onto,” Witryol said.

Contact reporter Justin Sondel at 282-2311, ext. 2257