By Mark Scheer
Lockport Union-Sun & Journal
Lockport Union-Sun & Journal — A four-year-old controversy involving the delivery of PCBs to a hazardous waste landfill in Niagara County is now at the center of a new debate involving two candidates running for the New York state senate.
Democrat Amy Hope Witryol maintains that a campaign flier distributed to households in the Niagara Falls area earlier this week contains “factually inaccurate” information about her position on the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s 2008 decision to transfer thousands of tons of PCB-contaminated waste to the CWM Chemical Services’ landfill in the Town of Porter.
Her opponent in this year’s 62nd District — incumbent state Sen. George Maziarz, R-Newfane — asserts that the information found on the mailer is “absolutely true,” including its central message that Witryol — well-known locally for her work on environmental issues — put “politics over people” when she “refused to join” local efforts to stop New York State from dumping “150 million pounds” of PCB waste “in our backyard.”
The piece of campaign literature suggests the amount of hazardous waste involved in the move was “equal to the weight of 478 Statues of Liberty” and on one side shows a series of pictures of Lady Liberty to reinforce the point.
The flier also promotes the idea that it was Maziarz who “fought to stop” the dumping plan, while saying it’s a “fact” that Witryol “didn’t.”
“It was, as far as I was concerned, a no-brainer for Niagara County,” Maziarz said, referring to what he characterizes as his attempts to compel the DEC to handle the waste differently. “The DEC was taking the easy way out, dumping it in Niagara County. She took the position that the DEC had no other choice.”
A July 31, 2008 op-ed piece that appeared in the Niagara Gazette in which Witryol characterized the DEC’s decision to send the waste to a landfill instead of treating it on-site as a “done deal.” The flier describes the letter to the paper as “defending the state’s decision as the best choice available.”
Another piece: A comment Maziarz said former DEC Commissioner Pete Grannis supposedly said to him at the time, insinuating that Witryol was on board with the DEC’s plan for the PCBs.
As for her motivation, Maziarz speculates — as does the flier — that it had to do with Witryol’s political aspirations and her “personal animosity” toward him.
“She should have been fighting alongside me to prevent this from coming,” Maziarz said.
Witryol — who has for years actively campaigned against the expansion of CWM’s hazardous waste landfill — characterized the direct mail piece as an example of the kind of “dirty politics” career politicians like Maziarz employ when they want to distort a challenger’s record because they are unable to defend their own. She suggested he had little to no interest in the PCBs plan before the DEC signed off on off-site removal — the period in which she said a good elected leader would have stepped in to make sure his constituents’ interests were being fully protected.
“He didn’t start finding until he knew the decision was irrevocable,” Witryol said. “I didn’t defend the DEC. I explained what the DEC did.”
What the DEC did originally was seek bids for the on-site disposal of PCB-laden waste at a cleanup project in Queensbury, just north of Albany. At the time, the agency received just one bid for on-site disposal, which came in several million dollars over estimate. As a result, the DEC rebid, allowing for either on-site or off-site disposal. The second time around, the agency selected the cheaper alternative — off-site removal to CWM.
Maziarz says he argued at the time that the agency should have tested the waters again for on-site options to prevent the off-site plan involving CWM from being considered. At the time, he said he initiated a local petition drive aimed at convincing officials from the agency to follow that course.
Witryol says Maziarz did so only after he knew the DEC had signed off on contracts allowing the off-site removal to happen, knowing full well that there was no way the agency could reverse course and follow the demands of those signing up for Maziarz’s petition drive.
As for her op-ed piece, Witryol said at the time she was attempting to explain what the agency actually did, not to justify it or support it, but rather to describe the specific process to the general public. She said she too had hoped the DEC would be able to get out of its deal for off-site removal.
“He did nothing the first time because he knew the contracts had been signed,” she said. “We held out hope that the DEC could find a loophole in the contract but they couldn’t.”
“If the contract’s already signed, you can’t rescind the contract and rebid it,” she added.
As for the senator’s suggestion that her own political aspirations played a role in her thinking back then, Wityrol said she wasn’t interested and would have been foolish to pursue such a path to elected office.
“In 2008 — according to this (flier) — I secretly wanted to run against Maziarz and picked a strategy of wanting to bring PCBs to the county? How silly is that?” she said. “It’s fascinating to me that Maziarz asserts that the DEC would rely on my opinion over his.”
One thing not found on the 11-inch by 13-inch oversized postcard is any sort of indication as to who produced and distributed it.
On Thursday, Maziarz acknowledged that his campaign committee was responsible for it and is standing behind its message. When asked why he didn’t declare that his campaign committee covered the cost of production and delivery on the mailer itself, Maziarz said his committee did not do so because “it’s not required to.”
On that point, according to John Conklin, a spokesperson for the New York State Board of Elections, Maziarz is correct. Conklin said there is no attribution requirement for mailers under state campaign laws.
“We don’t have anything like that under New York state law,” he said.
Witryol said Maziarz’s decision not to attribute the mailer speaks volumes.
“What this all means is George Maziarz has decided he can’t win this election fair and square,” Witryol said. “I will not fool or deceive people to win an election. They deserve better.”
Maziarz continued to insist that it is Witryol who is attempting to distort her position on the PCBs issue.
“I was trying to muster the forces to say ‘wait, rebid,’” Maziarz said. “Why didn’t she join me in the petition drive?”
Wendy Swearingen, vice president of the local non-profit group Residents for Responsible Government, which has worked with Witryol on efforts to prevent expansion of CWM’s Porter landfill, said she’s not buying it.
“She’s the most knowledgeable person in our county pretty much about CWM and all the waste they have here and she’s spent a lot of time fighting the expansion of CWM,” she said. “It’s just ludicrous that her dedication to the environment would be questioned.”