By Mark Scheer
Niagara Gazette — A citizens group that has led the fight to stop the expansion of a hazardous waste landfill in the Town of Porter will hold a press conference today to discuss their disappointment with a decision made earlier this week by a group of Niagara County lawmakers.
Members of Residents for Responsible Government plan to gather at 12:15 p.m. at the Palace Theatre in Lockport to air their concerns about the Niagara County Legislature's decision to delay a contract extension with an environmental attorney who has for years provided legal advice to opponents of the proposed expansion of the CWM Chemical Services' landfill.
"This is a regional issue," said RRG member and Lewiston resident Wendy Swearingen, referring to the proposed landfill expansion. "It's not just the residents of Lewiston and Porter. Everybody is going to be affected by this."
The scheduling of the press conference follows Tuesday's decision by the legislature to send a resolution calling for the extension of the attorney's contract to its Administration Committee. The move was made to give lawmakers an opportunity to meet next month with the lawyer, Gary Abraham of Allegany, who has been helping to fight the landfill's expansion since 2005 under a joint agreement covered by both the county and the Town of Lewiston.
RRG President April Fideli said members of her group are hoping today's press conference will raise awareness about the need for the attorney and the health, science and legal experts who are working with him in preparation for upcoming New York State Department of Environmental Conservation hearings on the proposed landfill expansion.
"It's all been halted because there's no funds going to them," Fideli said, referring to Abraham and his support team. "Any day the DEC could come out and say this is when the process starts and, right now, the people in Niagara County have no one to represent them."
The measure that was sent to committee on Tuesday was co-sponsored by legislature Chairman Bill Ross, C-Wheatfield, and Legislator Clyde Burmaster, R-Ransomville. It called for Niagara County Attorney Claude Joerg to draw up a formal engagement letter that would allow the county and the Town of Lewiston to share the cost of Abraham's legal fees on an alternating basis moving forward.
Resolutions are often referred to committee before being voted on by the full legislature. Legislative rules allow for resolutions to bypass committee review, but only if such action is supported unanimously by all 15 legislators. There is also a clause in the rule that bars such a move in instances where a resolution involves the expenditure of county funds.
On Thursday, Burmaster said members of the Republican-led caucus had a lengthy debate about putting the measure to a vote or referring it to committee. Ultimately, he said, it was decided that committee members should be allowed to sit down with Abraham for a progress report so they understand where the county stands in terms of the landfill expansion issue and what more needs to be done on the front in the future.
Burmaster, who has long supported efforts to oppose landfill expansion, said he's hopeful the measure will ultimately win approval once it has been reviewed by committee members.
"I believe we really need to continue doing this," Burmaster said. "Everything we have done to oppose this expansion has been unanimous and I'm hoping we will come at this unanimous."
Minority Leader Dennis Virtuoso, D-Niagara Falls, said the members of his caucus support continuing the county's relationship with Abraham.
"How are you going to fight this big company without a qualified lawyer?" Virtuoso said. "You're not going to be able to do it. This guy's been doing a great job for 10 years."
Earlier this month, members of the Lewiston town board agreed to set aside $50,000 in the town's 2014 budget as part of environmental protection fund. The town's budget has not yet been approved.
RRG members fear any delay in finalizing an agreement with Abraham could have a negative impact on their position during upcoming state-sanctioned hearings on CWM's expansion plan.
"It's absolutely vital that we have somebody representing us at the siting hearing," Swearingen said.
IF YOU GO • WHAT: RRG press conference • WHEN: 12:15 p.m. today • WHERE: Palace Theatre, 2 East Ave.