Niagara Gazette

August 4, 2013

EDITORIAL: Situation surrounding Covanta's air permit application is troubling

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Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — It’s hard to imagine that in the wake of the recent Tonawanda Coke saga any regulatory agency would allow a company to install equipment without having an approved air permit in place.

And yet, this week, thanks to the hard work of some county residents, the Niagara Falls community has learned that Covanta Niagara, LLC, which operates a waste-to-energy facility off 56th Street, proceeded with the installation of a smokestack and natural gas boiler prior to having its air permit approved by the state’s lead environmental watchdog — the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.

As we learned with Tonawanda Coke, where the company and one of its top officials have been convicted of skirting environmental rules and contributing to the pollution of the air in the surrounding community, there’s no room for failure when it comes to oversight of firms involved in businesses that can have an impact on the very air we breathe. 

Covanta claims that it moved ahead with part of its ongoing expansion project because it was “critical” to its ability to provide steam for neighboring companies, including the new Greenpac liner board mill off 47th Street. It also claims the project moved forward with the “knowledge and concurrence” of the regulatory agency. 

Falls residents now know the DEC knew construction had commenced in May, even though Covanta is still in the process of obtaining approval for a Title V permit renewal. This week, after prodding from Lewiston resident Amy Hope Witryol and Falls residents Chris Kudela and Shirley Hamilton, the agency announced it had issued a notice of violation and is considering enforcement actions, including possibly fines and injunctive relief, against Covanta. 

Covanta officials say they had no intention of firing up the equipment before obtaining the proper permit to do so. 

While that may be true, it is disconcerting that the firm felt it could push forward with a non-permitted project for economic reasons.

And then there’s the DEC’s position here. The agency’s own documentation suggests it knew about Covanta’s intentions to move forward with installation back in May. If so, why didn’t DEC regulators step in at that time? 

It appears as though DEC officials, hired to protect the community’s interest, acted only after the situation at Covanta was brought to the public’s attention by three concerned residents. 

If so, that is troubling.   

Witryol, who has in the past dedicated vast amounts of time and energy to monitoring activities at the CWM hazardous waste landfill, has been asking pointed questions about the project for weeks now. Other residents, including Kudela and Hamilton, are now joining her efforts.

Her concerns, including those addressed to the Niagara County IDA, which granted an incentive package worth $8 million as part of the expansion effort, have largely been ignored by local appointed and elected officials. 

It’s not too late for them, and others, to get more involved. 

The DEC is accepting comments from the public about Covanta’s air permit application through Monday. The Niagara Falls Planning Board has set a hearing for Aug. 14 to allow for more input from the public. Participation in the process is key to protecting the community’s best interest. 

One thing has become abundantly clear: Covanta’s expansion project is far too important to ignore.