By Justin Sondel
Niagara Gazette — The city of Niagara Falls has an opportunity to get more from a waste-to-energy facility that operates in the city.
At least that's the view of a community advocate who has researched public policy and the waste industry in Niagara County for years.
Amy Hope Witryol sent a letter to the city of Niagara Falls Planning Board and the city's Environmental Coordinator Alan Nusbaum detailing the reasons she believes the board should revisit its negative declaration determination for the New York State Department of Conservation State Environmental Quality Review.
The review, known as SEQR, is a requirement for Covanta Energy Inc. as they work to reopen a rail spur that will allow the company to accept waste by train. All waste now enters the plant on trucks.
In the letter, Witryol argues the board should consider reopening the SEQR determination because the company provided "inaccurate and incomplete information" during the application process.
Witryol refers to a series of documents including a draft contract term sheet between the New York City Department of Sanitation and Covanta and DEC filings detailing the amounts and types of waste processed at the Niagara Falls plant while making the argument that the planning board did not have all the information it need when deciding on the SEQR determination last fall.
"Covanta asserted that NYC waste would be replacing only Canadian waste, and, that NYC waste would consume approximately 50 percent of Covanta Niagara capacity." Witryol said in the letter. "Both appear to be untrue."
The draft contract identifies two end destination plants run by Covanta for up to 1 million tons of waste each year to be split between the two locations. The terms of the deal run 20 years with two five-year extensions available, according to the draft contract.
A positive declaration would give the city more leverage in negotiating with the company for a better deal. In exchange for hosting garbage incinerators, the city should receive things like a host community agreement and guarantees on the amounts and types of waste processed in years to come, Witryol said in her letter.
"You have given them a rail spur with no strings attached," she said.
In the letter, Witryol raised a series of other concerns including the possibility that New York City waste could displace local waste and drive up costs for local municipalities and that waste ash would more quickly fill local landfills.
The city should bargain to have mitigation measures — either economic or environmental — guaranteed by the company.
"I think that if the people of Niagara Falls deserve some compensation for hosting a company that doesn't burn its waste and is emitting contaminants that the agencies consider to be dangerous," Covanta said.
James Regan, a Covanta spokesperson, took issue with Witryol's claims that the company mislead the board.
Regan focused on her claims of how much waste will come from New York City and what types of waste will be burned, he said.
"She made so many assumptions that are just plain wrong," he said.
Regan refuted all of her claims and said that by using numbers from past years she is not considering the fluid nature of the waste business,
"Things change over time," he said.
Regan invited any member of the public to contact the company with questions about the rail spur.
"We'd be happy to meet with people if they have questions," he said.
Thomas DeSantis, the city's chief planner addressed similar concerns raised at Wednesday's planning board meeting by two citizens, saying the city was looking into the situation.
"We are aware of concerns that have been raised," DeSantis said. "We're looking at those concerns seriously."
DeSantis said the city had no recommendation for the board at the meeting, but would come back to the board after reviewing the information provided by Witryol, Covanta and others.
"We will have some conclusion to that and an appropriate course of action based on what we learn," he said.
Rick Smith, the planning board chairman, said the board will wait to hear from the city before deciding whether the SEQR determination can and should be revisited.
"Let's wait until we compile all of the information that's out there ... and then it can be brought back to us," Smith said. "Will we revisit it? I don't know. We'll see."
In other planning board news;
• The board approved site plans for Plati Niagara Inc.'s planned 110-room hotel. Frank Strangio, the president of Plati Niagara, said the hotel that will sit at the corner of Fourth Street and Rainbow Boulevard will be a Wingate by Wyndham flagship.
• The board voted to approve the sale of the parcel located at310 Rainbow Boulevard to Hamister Development Group LLC. The developer plans to build a mixed-use building with a hotel, residential and retail space on the vacant lot. The site had previously been home to the hot air balloon attraction.
• The board approved the sale of six city-owned vacant lots to residents with adjacent properties, The city's Community Development department launched a campaign to put the city's lots back into the hands of homeowners last month.Contact reporter Justin Sondel at 282-2311, ext. 2257