Niagara Gazette — A Niagara Falls waste-to-energy plant has agreed to a fine related to the unpermitted installation of new equipment after negotiations with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.
Covanta Niagara will pay a $67,500 fine and will not perform any further work on a natural gas boiler, steam pipe system and 190-foot smoke stack, according to a consent order with the DEC signed on Jan. 8.
Megan Gollwitzer, a DEC spokesperson, said the fine was calculated using Environmental Protection Agency guidelines in an email to the Gazette.
The DEC issued a notice of violation on Aug. 1 of last year, two days after DEC Commissioner Joseph Martens received a letter from Lewiston resident Amy Hope Witryol and Niagara Falls residents Chris Kudela and Shirley Hamilton alerting him to the installation of the smoke stack despite the comment period on the company's air permit renewal still being active.
The DEC is still reviewing the company's application to renew its air permit, which includes the new boiler and smokestack in addition to the incinerators the Covanta has been using for decades.
James Regan, a Covanta spokesperson based in the company's Morristown, N.J. headquarters, acknowledged that the company had agreed to pay the fine in an email statement sent to the Gazette earlier this week.
"Covanta has signed a consent order and agreed to a civil penalty with NYSDEC to resolve the notice of violation we received in August 2013. Now that the issue is resolved we look forward to completing the permitting process and moving ahead with our planned improvements to the facility," Regan said in the statement. "Plans include the installation of a natural gas boiler and construction of rail infrastructure which will result in the creation of new jobs in the Niagara Falls area, ensure a consistent supply of steam energy for all the local businesses that depend on Covanta and reduce truck deliveries to the facility by 30-50 percent."
The consent order does not go nearly far enough in the opinion of Witryol, a retired bank executive who has researched the waste industry and public policy in Niagara County for years.
Witryol said the DEC could have required the company to dismantle the boiler and smokestack work — which she estimates is 90 percent complete — as a more suitable punishment for going forward with the unpermitted work.
"If the DEC had required them to dismantle it and then put it back up it would have been close to $4 million," Witryol said.
The estimated cost of the boiler and smokestack installation is $2 million and the total cost of that project, including all equipment and soft costs, is estimated to be $10.5 million, according to paperwork submitted to the Niagara County Industrial Development Agency as part of the application for an $8 million tax break the agency granted to the company in January of 2013.
The $67,500 fine accounts for less than 1 percent of the total cost of the boiler and smokestack project and will have little impact on the company, Witryol said.
"Relative to this particular infraction it would not seem to deter any company like this from violating DEC regulations," she said.
The boiler and smokestack are part of a larger project that includes a series of rail spurs that will allow the company to take municipal waste from New York City by rail.
Covanta signed a 20-year contract with the New York City Department of Sanitation that will see approximately 500,000 tons of municipal waste transported by rail to the Niagara Falls plant last August. The contract has the option for two five-year extensions.
Witryol, along with Kudela, Hamilton and some neighbors of the 56th Street plant, have asked Mayor Paul Dyster and members of the city's planning board to revisit a negative declaration on the DEC's State Environmental Quality Review — an environmental review required to move the rail spur project forward — in order to leverage contractual guarantees on future waste burning practices at the facility and a host community agreement that would see the city benefit financially for dealing with the pollutants emitted by the plants waste incinerators.
The planning board granted the negative declaration in the fall of 2012.
Witryol also challenged assertions made by Regan, the Covanta spokesperson, saying there are no guarantees that the new infrastructure will create any new jobs.
Covanta estimates that its infrastructure expansion project will create the equivalent of 23 full-time jobs, according to its tax break application to the IDA.
The statement from Regan contradicts itself, in that if truck traffic to the facility is reduced the area will be trading truck driver jobs for jobs at the waste-to-energy facility, Witryol said.
The city would be better off concentrating on improving recycling rates, which would cause more recycling facilities to open or expand and add more jobs than the Covanta expansion project, she added.
"Do the recycling in Niagara Falls, which would have a much larger increase in jobs for the city than simply hiring, replacing the truck drivers with people to manage the rail cars," she said.
Witryol said the fine Covanta will pay to the DEC gives them no incentive to change their behavior in the future.
"The message that the DEC is sending to Covanta is 'go ahead and violate regulations whenever you want,' " she said.Contact reporter Justin Sondel at 282-2311, ext. 2257