A proposal to build the state’s largest trash incinerator in Romulus is now testing whether state government has the political will to address what is widely seen as a looming environmental disaster for the Finger Lakes.
Burning New York City municipal waste imported by truck and train into the up-and-coming wine and tourism region is intensely unpopular among the vast majority of area residents, businesses and local officials. That election-year groundswell has prompted virtually every state legislator in the heart of the Finger Lakes — including the top Republican in the state Assembly and two Republican committee chairs in the Senate — to take up the incinerator opponents’ cause.
But the fledgling bills they now sponsor face an uncertain future.
“This is not going to be a light lift,” said Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton (D-Ithaca), co-sponsor of an Assembly bill (A10277) that seeks to disqualify waste incinerators from a permitting process that preempts local control. Lifton and others think her bill has better prospects than an identical bill in the Republican-controlled Senate.
So the acid test for the region’s attempted legislative fix will likely come in the Senate, where freshman Sen. Pam Helming (R-Canandiagua) and co-sponsor Tom O’Mara (R-Big Flats) will try to convince Senate leadership to allow the bill to come up for a vote in committee and the Senate floor.
“Introducing a bill is easy. Passing it is hard,” said Judith Enck, former regional director for New York at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “This is going to be a test for Helming. Can she convince her Republican colleagues to help her protect her district?”
Enck calls waste incineration a dying industry that has only managed to open one new plant nationally — in Florida — in the past decade. She said Helming has plenty of ammunition to argue that her Senate district, which lies between lakes Seneca and Cayuga, is a poor place for the second one.
“I think if the bill ever comes up for a vote before the committee or the Senate floor, it will pass,” Enck added.
However, to allow such votes, Republican leaders in the Senate would need to buck stances taken by two of its traditional political allies: the Business Council of New York and the Independent Power Producers of New York (IPPNY).
Both groups backed a 2011 law that specifically included waste incinerators in a new permitting process that shifts control for siting electric power plants away from local officials to an appointed board in Albany.
That year, the IPPNY stressed the importance of allowing all electric power producers, regardless of fuel used, to qualify for the expedited permitting. The trade group also backed an unsuccessful 2011 bid by Covanta, one of its members, to reclassify energy produced by its seven existing waste incinerators in the state as “renewable energy.”
The IPPNY said this week it hadn’t taken a position on the 2018 incinerator bills, while the Business Council did not respond to emailed questions.
If the trade groups object and Senate leadership quietly bows to their wishes, Helming’s Senate bill will die in the Senate Energy and Telecommunications committee without a vote.
That would be just fine with Alan Knauf, attorney for Circular enerG LLC of Rochester, the company that proposes to build the $365 million incinerator in Romulus. He said he wondered why the Finger Lakes legislators are trying to restrict permitting options for all future incinerator projects just because they object to the location of this one.
“It sounds kind of crazy, like throwing the baby out with the bathwater … to make a change like that for one project,” Knauf said.
The 2011 law revived a process of power plant siting, known as “Article 10”, that had been in place from 1992 through the end of 2002. It was authorized by a Republican bill, signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, intended to help wind farm projects overcome nearly inevitable local opposition and to help site new plants to replace the power lost by the closing of the Indian Point nuclear plant.
From 2003 through 2011, wind farms plans typically faced a buzz saw of local opposition based on local zoning laws and the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQR). Courts tended to uphold SEQR challenges.
The new Article 10 law empowered a permanent board of five state officials (plus two local officials for each proposed project) to waive overly burdensome local laws and to completely sidestep SEQR. The law also cut the size of plants that qualified for the expedited process from 80 megawatts to 25 megawatts.
The state Department of Public Service’s Board on Electric Generation Siting and the Environment is now chaired by John B. Rhodes.
If the intended purpose of Article 10 was to expedite the siting of electric power plants, the siting board has failed. Of the 17 wind projects that have started the process, only one has been approved. Solar project applications have an 0-for-14 record. The only other two projects it has considered are 0-for-2. So much for the fast track.
For its Romulus project, Circular enerG initially attempted to seek local permits and to comply with SEQR. It said the first phase of its project would produce just under 25 megawatts of power — apparently disqualifying it from the jurisdiction the siting board.
Documents the company filed suggest that it was banking on a paying out a generous “host agreement” to encourage — or buy — local support. It also convinced a local zoning officer to quietly sign a letter, which Knauf helped draft, that said the project would produce renewable energy, easing its chances for zoning approval.
But public opposition to the project snowballed, and local officials who initially said they were willing to listen declared their opposition.
In January, the company dropped its apparently futile efforts to win a local special use permit and opted instead to seek permits from the siting board. Knauf said the switch was prompted by instructions from state officials.
To qualify for siting board jurisdiction, the company rejiggered its plans for the plant, declaring that it could generate up to 80 megawatts.
Although the siting board has the authority to waive local zoning laws, that doesn’t necessarily mean it will be inclined to do so. Those local laws may in fact represent a “significant barrier” to siting board approval
Circular enerG launched its bid for siting board permits by filing a proposed public involvement plan (PIP) March 13 that included a “study area” within a five-mile radius of the proposed plant site at the former Seneca Army Depot.
On April 12, the Department of Public Service staff responded with a letter calling for major changes and additions to the company’s PIP plan — and what may be seen as an important warning shot:
“Initial indications from the Town of Romulus filed in the Public Comments of this case indicate that the Facility is not a permitted use. The PIP Plan should include a discussion of what engagement efforts the Applicant is going to undertake to overcome this significant barrier to the viability of the Project.”
The DPS staff said the company’s plan to notify all registered voters in the study area wasn’t good enough. It said Circular enerG must contact all property owners in the area, a far larger group.
The agency also asked for specifics on truck and rail routes that would be used to transport trash to the incinerator. And it called for affected municipalities to be notified.
Knauf has acknowledged that much of the trash the incinerator would burn would probably come from New York City. But he noted that municipal waste is a commodity market driven by price and often by negotiated long-term contracts.
He insisted that it’s impossible to say exactly where the incinerator fuel (trash) will come from. “It’s entirely possible we’ll have no trash from New York City because Waste Management has it all sewn up with a negotiated contract,” Knauf said.
But the company’s initial executive summary of plans for the project makes it clear that New York City is the target market. In describing likely truck traffic, it said: “An average distance of 254 miles (the distance from New York City to the Project Site) was assumed as a conservative measure of the distance from the source of generation of (municipal waste) to the disposal facilities.”
In a recent podcast debate with Knauf, incinerator opponent Michael Warren Thomas said, “They’re building this to solve the garbage problem in New York City.”
Thomas, a member of the Finger Lakes Wine and Business Coalition, argued that the incinerator would stifle investment in new Finger Lakes wineries. He called the plant and the associated train and truck traffic “a dagger to heart of the Finger Lakes.”
Knauf responded by saying technological advances have dramatically reduced emissions of dioxins and mercury from waste incinerators over the past 20 years. He cited a Columbia University study.
Helming, who was recently named chair of the state Senate Committee on Children and Families, has been particularly outspoken about the Romulus incinerator proposal.
At a budget hearing in February, she said it doesn’t solve any issue for her Senate district.
“We have two landfills within 20 miles of this proposed incinerator,” Helming said. “So we don’t have any need locally. The waste is going to be trucked in from downstate, from out of state. It’s just wrong. We take more than our fair share of waste in the Finger Lakes area.”
Helming urged Gov. Cuomo to block the project in a March 9 letter that was also signed by Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb (R-Canandaigua) and Assemblyman Phil Palmesano (R-Corning).
Helming’s Senate bill (S8109) also has the public support of O’Mara, chair of the powerful Senate Committee on the Environment.
“I appreciate this opportunity to sponsor this legislation with Senator Helming and I join her in the fight to ensure that our local decision makers are given the authority they should rightly have on proposals and projects like this one,” O’Mara said in a statement Apr. 6.
O’Mara, who voted ‘Yes’ on the 2011 bill that included waste incinerators under the siting board’s jurisdiction, did not respond to emailed questions about that vote or his commitment to promoting S8109 in the face of likely opposition from the IPPNY and/or the Business Council of New York.
The Senate bill has been referred to the Senate Committee on Energy and Telecommunications, which is chaired by Sen. Joseph A. Griffo (R-Rome). Griffo was one of only 3 “No” votes in the Senate on the 2011 bill.
But one Albany insider described the multi-faceted 2011 bill as a “big-ugly,” and he said the votes of O’Mara and Griffo don’t necessarily reflect their views on the narrow question of how to treat waste incinerators.
While Finger Lakes Republicans have been the more vocal in touting their bill, Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton (D-Ithaca), had a key role in drafting both the bill and its official “justification.”
She said she successfully obtained support for her bill from Assemblyman Michael Cusick (D-Staten Island), chair of the Assembly Committee on Energy. Cusick is co-sponsor of Lifton’s bill, and he is expected to call for a vote on it in his committee.
The memos accompanying both the Assembly and Senate bills include the following:
“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. 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. These facilities are effectively solid waste landfills which contravene New York’s goals to increase recycling rates, and should not be a part of the state’s streamlined power plant siting process.”