A matching pair of new bills in the state Legislature — one sponsored by Republicans in the Senate, the other by Democrats in the Assembly — would prohibit any garbage incinerator from obtaining an operating license through the state Public Service Commission.
If enacted, the legislation would take effect immediately and torpedo a recent proposal by a Rochester company to build the state’s largest waste incinerator at the former Seneca Army Depot in Romulus.
Blowing up that Finger Lakes project is the explicit point of the Senate bill (S8109), introduced Mar. 29 by state Sen. Pam Helming (R-Canandaigua), whose district includes Romulus.
“This legislation eliminates trash incinerators from the (PSC’s) expedited state siting process and ensures that municipalities will have authority to decide, based on their own zoning laws, if a trash incinerator project moves forward,” the sponsor’s bill memo states.
A bill with a similar intent has also been introduced in the Assembly, although it had not been assigned a bill number as of late Apr. 5. According to an Assembly press release issued Apr. 4, that measure was co-sponsored by Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton (D-Ithaca) and Assemblyman Michael J. Cusick (D-Staten Island), chair of the Assembly Committee on Energy. Bianca Rajpersaud, a spokeswoman for Cusick, said the wording of Assembly bill, which was requested by Lifton, would “correlate” with the Senate bill.
Both bills target the Romulus project. Together they reflect bi-partisan support for local authority on incinerator permitting issues. However, the vast majority of introduced bills do not become law, often because the sponsors aren’t able to round up broad-based support in the full Legislature.
In November, Circular enerG LLC of Rochester unveiled plans to build a $365 million incinerator that would generate up to 50 megawatts of power by burning up to 2,640 tons of garbage a day — more than any of the state’s other 10 major trash burners.
The company, formed in January 2017, has no experience in electric power generation or waste disposal.
Most of the waste it has proposed to handle would be trucked in from the New York City area. Circular enerG said some garbage might eventually arrive by rail as well (though local railroad tracks would need an overhaul first).
While the plan appeared to many local officials to violate Romulus zoning law, Circular enerG argued that the plant deserved special consideration because it had been classified as a renewable energy project. That claim was based on a two-paragraph letter, which Circular enerG drafted and a local zoning officer quietly signed behind the backs of several members of the Romulus Town Board and the Romulus Planning Board.
The state does not recognize garbage incinerators as renewable energy projects, having denied waste industry efforts in 2011 to have them included in that category.
Initially, Circular enerG sought to obtain a special use permit from the Romulus Planning Board. That regulatory path would have involved analysis by the state Department of Environmental Conservation and required a full environmental impact statement under the State Environmental Quality Review Act. Its bid for a local permit triggered intense public opposition in and around Romulus.
In early January, the company abandoned efforts to obtain local approval after the Romulus Town Supervisor voiced opposition to the project and the Romulus Planning Board voted to disavow the zoning officer’s letter.
Circular enerG then turned its efforts toward obtaining operating permits from the state’s Board on Electric Generation Siting and the Environment, which has legal authority to ignore local opposition under Article 10 of the state’s public service law.
“The proposed plant has been blocked by local zoning regulation and failed to receive local permits, but the state siting law could preempt municipal law and allow the plant to be constructed, if approved by the Public Service Commission,” Helming wrote in her bill memo.
Waste incinerators shouldn’t have that alternate path to obtaining operating permits, Helming said.
“Fundamentally, trash incinerators are not effective mechanisms for electricity generation, often producing less electricity than is expended to (burn) waste materials, and at a higher cost,” Helming wrote. “They also produce toxic ash from burning a range of solid wastes which can vary widely in chemical output, making compliance with emissions and toxic waste limits difficult.”
She added that the air and ash pollution from a trash incinerator located in the Finger Lakes region would damage local tourism, winery and agriculture industries. Her bill is co-sponsored by state Sen. Tom O’Mara (R-Big Flats), chair of the Senate’s Environmental Conservation Committee. O’Mara’s Senate district lies to the southwest of Romulus.
In the Assembly press release dated Apr. 4, Lifton and Cusick stressed that their Assembly bill, if signed into law, would take effect immediately and would “apply to proposed facilities which have not been issued a certificate” by the siting board. That includes the Circular enerG project.
“This bill very properly removes incinerators, as they are not really power plants, from the expedited Article 10 siting process and restores local control and full environmental review,” Lifton said in the release. Lifton’s Assembly district lies to the southeast of Romulus.
Last month, Circular enerG launched its bid for permits from the siting board by filing a required Public Involvement Plan (PIP) with the PSC.
On Apr. 3, lawyers for Earthjustice, which represents the groups Seneca Lake Guardian and the Finger Lakes Wine Business Coalition, filed a letter with the PSC claiming that the company’s PIP was inadequate and needed to be rewritten.
Among the flaws Earthjustice cited:
— While the company’s “study area” for those affected by the incinerator is a circle with a five-mile radius from the plant site, the federal Environmental Protection Agency uses a radius of 10 kilometers, or 6.2 miles, when assessing air impacts for waste incinerators.
— While the company proposes to mail informational flyers to all addresses on “the voting rolls” within its study area, that would exclude owners of many seasonal lake homes within five miles who are registered to vote elsewhere. Earthjustice also said company should systematically notify all people within the Lakeshore Landing neighborhood and the Spring Meadows Apartment Complex — both well within the company’s study area.
— While company documents suggest that incinerator would generate more than 70,000 truck trips per year, the public involvement plan does not provide detailed information on potential truck routes, which would be affected by noise and air pollution.
A spokesman for the PSC noted that the agency has 30 days to accept the company’s PIP — filed Mar. 13 — or require that it be revised. The PSC docket for the case did not show any action on the company’s PIP filing.
Alan Knauf, lead attorney for Circular enerG, did not return an Apr. 4 phone call seeking comment.