By Justin Sondel firstname.lastname@example.org
Niagara Gazette — Residents in the neighborhood next to a waste-to-energy facility in the Falls are trying to raise awareness of the company’s plans to begin bringing New York City garbage in by rail to be processed.
Chris Kudela, a retired Niagara Falls firefighter, lives near Covanta Energy Inc.’s Niagara plant in the city’s LaSalle neighborhood.
He has started to organize people in an effort to engage the company and seek answers regarding the effects that shipping the waste from New York City to Niagara Falls will have on his neighborhood.
“We just want to make sure that things are covered here,” he said during a phone interview this past week.
Kudela said he has been following the issue, attending public meetings and reading up on the company, but he still has questions.
Kudela organized a meeting of neighbors and other concerned citizens at the Niagara Falls Vineyard Christian Fellowship, less than a mile from Covanta’s Niagara facility, Wednesday night.
Kudela was only able to bring a handful of people together to discuss the terms of a rail spur project that was cleared by the Niagara Falls Planning Board. But he and the people who joined him plan on going door-to-door to spread information about the rail spur and other projects, he said.
He hopes to raise awareness quickly, as the comment period for Covanta’s Title V air permit renewal — the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation permit that allows companies to emit a specified amount of pollutants like mercury and dioxins into the air — ends July 5.
Most of the people in the neighborhood have no idea that the company is going to be receiving New York City waste by rail, according to Kudela.
“We’re trying to let the neighborhood know, give them an inkling as to what’s going on,” he said.
Kudela understands that the company employs Niagara Falls residents and does not want to stop Covanta from increasing business. But, he wants to know that the increase in rail traffic will not effect the quality of life in his neighborhood.
“We’re all sensitive to the fact that there are jobs involved here,” he said. “But, if it’s a matter of (the company) saving money or putting us through grief, they’re going to spend the money.”
Amy Witryol, a community advocate who has researched public policy related to the waste industry in Niagara County for years, attended the meeting Wednesday night.
She has been a vocal critic of many aspects of Covanta’s expansion.
One of the criticisms she has leveled against the company is that they have done a poor job of community outreach and have failed to meet state regulations that require companies that pollute in poor and minority neighborhoods classified as Environmental Justice Areas to work in those neighborhoods to ensure that the people most affected understand the nature and extent of the pollution.
“It was incredibly disappointing to see their treatment of an environmental justice area,” she said.
Witryol has been asking the DEC to require the company to again perform the environmental justice outreach, as she views their first effort to be out of compliance with the agency’s policy, she said.
Covanta published public notices in local papers announcing a public information meeting that served as part of the environmental justice requirements for the renewal of the company’s air permit.
Witryol argues that many poor families cannot afford a newspaper subscription and that those residents who did see the notice — it included a picture of a smiling Covanta employee with the company logo — would not have known that the purpose of the meeting was to discuss health risks associated with the expansion of the company’s facilities.
Included in that expansion is the addition of a natural gas furnace that will operate as a back up for the company’s new steam line that will supply steam energy to surrounding factories.
That gas furnace and the 190-foot smoke stack that comes with it were not mentioned in the public notice. Neither was the approved rail spur that will allow the company’s Niagara facility to accept New York City waste.
At the April meeting, company employees and DEC employees were on hand in the banquet hall of a Niagara Falls Boulevard hotel to explain the expansions and permit renewal to interested residents. Only four residents — including Witryol and Kudela — and a handful of city officials attended the information session.
The banquet hall was lined with brightly colored posters and maps, some promoting the environmental virtues of waste-to-energy facilities. The permit application was available for review on another table running along the side of the room.
Witryol argues that the public notice and the materials at the information meeting seemed more like an advertisement for the company than the thorough explanation of public health risks associated with the company’s expansion that the environmental justice policy calls for.
“Even if residents had got a flier on their door they would not have known that it was a meeting discussing taking garbage from New York City and installing a new smoke stack,” she said.
Witryol said that in communicating with the Region 9 DEC, which covers Western New York, it seems as though their permitting department rubber stamps environmental justice plan applications as a matter of practice.
“They leave compliance with their own state environmental justice policy entirely to the discretion of the applicant,” Witryol said. “That’s the fox guarding the hen house.”
The Gazette reached out to the DEC’s Region 9 offices for comment, but none was offered by the agency.
James Regan, a Covanta spokesman, said the company went above and beyond the required measures for the environmental justice policy, publishing notice of the meeting twice and collecting all related documents on a website.
“We want residents to be informed about the project,” he said.
Witryol’s characterization of the public notice and materials for the meeting are unfair, added Regan.
“Everything in that session was factual in nature,” he explained.
Included on the website detailing the project are a telephone number (716-278-8520) and email address (email@example.com) where residents can submit questions and concerns.
Regan said the company will gladly answer any questions residents might have and the company encourages them to submit any concerns they may have.
“We’re not trying to hide here,” Regan said.Contact reporter Justin Sondel at 282-2311, ext. 2257