By Justin Sondel
Niagara Gazette — Covanta Energy had few visitors at its public information meeting Tuesday night, with only a handful of residents and public officials showing up to take in information about the company's ongoing expansions and related permits.
But they did have one very interested resident and activist who kept several of the company's employees busy for portions of the three-hour session.
Amy Hope Witryol, who has fought the expansion of waste facilities in the Niagara region for years, raised a number of concerns about the company's plans for the Niagara Falls waste-to-energy plant.
"We don't deserve to be the dumping grounds for New York City and the other 24 states that ship garbage to Covanta Niagara," Witryol said in a phone interview after the session.
The informational event was a part of a New York State Department of Environmental Conservation air permit process required because the plant lies within a mile of an Environmental Justice area, which is "broadly defined as the disproportionate exposure of minority and low-income populations to poor environmental conditions" by the Environmental Protection Agency.
The company has applied for an air permit on a natural gas furnace it is building to ensure that it can supply enough steam energy to the nearby plants that will be delivered by a new pipeline that is nearing completion. The company has included the new permit in a packaged application that would also renew all existing air permits the company holds with the DEC.
The event was held at Antonio's Banquet and Conference Center on Niagara Falls Boulevard in a small banquet room lined with informational posters. Chocolate chip cookies, tea and coffee were offered to the guests that made it to the event.
Witryol said she found some of the company's promotional materials and the wording of the advertisement of the event to be misleading.
In an advertisement, the company invited the public to "learn how we generate clean, renewable energy from household to waste."
Witryol contends the process is not clean or renewable citing documents from New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman's office and the DEC that deny that waste-to-energy facilities qualify as "Renewable Portfolio Standard," a classification that grants eligibility for certain tax credits.
"I disagree, and the state of New York disagrees, that this is sustainable," Witryol said.
Kevin O'Neil the company's business manager at the Niagara Falls plant, said other states and the EPA have described waste-to-energy companies as renewable.
Waste-to-energy facilities do qualify for some federal renewable energy tax credits according to the EPA's website.
"The EPA has determined that it is (renewable energy), along with 25 other states," O'Neil said.
Witryol also took issue with the company's inclusion of a rail spur expansion that Covanta is in the process of securing as part of Tuesday's session. That should require its own informational session, she said.
And the rail spur will allow the company to continue to import garbage to the area to be burned for decades, she said.
"Local governments should not be taking a stance on economic development that will promote more waste coming to the area," Witryol said. "They should be taking an economic development position that will stop the expansion of landfills, stop the trucking of garbage here and start the development of greener types of energy."
O'Neil said the rail spur will not increase the amount of garbage the plant incinerates — about 800,000 tons a year — but would create a more steady supply of waste to ensure that the company can fulfill its contractual obligations to nearby plants.
"We want to guarantee our supply of waste so that we can guarantee our supply of fuel," O'Neil said.
Mayor Paul Dyster was one of the city hall officials to attend the informational session.
He said he supports the expansion of rail to the facility because it will reduce carbon emissions from trucks and will reduce litter and odor emitted from the same trucks.
"The containers are going to be sealed and gasketed from the time that they come anywhere near Niagara Falls until they get to the tipping floor, which means any odor problems or blowing litter problems that you might have with the truck transport are not going to be recurring with the rail," Dyster said.
And the rail spur at Covanta will open up rail access for other companies located along that line, Dyster said.
"We would like to have more materials moving by rail and less by truck, for a lot of reasons," Dyster said. "Quality of life reasons, but also environmental reasons."Contact reporter Justin Sondel at 282-2311, ext. 2257