Lockport Union-Sun & Journal Online

October 21, 2013

Months after retirement, DEC has yet to replace on-site monitor at Covanta plant

By Justin Sondel justin.sondel@lockportjournal.com
Lockport Union-Sun & Journal

Lockport Union-Sun & Journal — The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation has yet to replace its on-site monitor at the Covanta Niagara waste-to-energy plant, with the position remaining vacant since an employee retired several months ago.

In an email from spokesperson Megan Gollwitzer this week, the DEC confirmed that the on-site monitor for the plant — a position funded by Covanta itself — has been and continues to be vacant.

“The monitor has retired and DEC is in the process of pursuing a replacement to fill this vacancy,” Gollwitzer said.

In a follow-up statement sent to the Gazette late Friday, an agency official said “other DEC staff” have been handling monitoring oversight since the monitor’s retirement. 

“It’s difficult to give a precise time frame for hiring a replacement, but the DEC is working to fill the position as soon as possible,” said spokesman Peter Constantakes. “Until the monitoring position is filled, DEC staff will conduct site visits on a regular basis.” 

In response to questions from the Gazette, Constantakes confirmed that for the state fiscal year 2013-14, Covanta provided $162,000 to fund the monitor position.

A group of local residents — Amy Hope Witryol of Lewiston, Shirley Hamilton of Niagara Falls and Chris Kudela of Niagara Falls — concerned with the absence of the monitor and other environmental issues at the plant, sent a Sept. 25 letter to DEC Commissioner Joseph Martens urging him to fill the position immediately.

“This letter is to request DEC expedite approval to fill an on-site monitor position at Covanta Niagara that has been vacant for months,” the letter reads. “Covanta’s Solid Waste permit requires it reimburse DEC for this expense, therefore, the delay is bewildering.”

Witryol said she does not understand how the DEC can include a provision requiring the company to have an on-site monitor in the air permit that regulates Covanta’s output of pollutants and allow the operation to continue without a new monitor in place.

“If you have a legal requirement for a monitor to be there, then it raises the question as to whether (the facility) can even operate without a DEC monitor on site,” she said.

The DEC issued a notice of violation against the company in August after Witryol, Hamilton and Kudela sent a letter to Martens alerting him to the company’s construction of a new smoke stack and boiler - part of an ongoing expansion project — without the required approval of a renewed air permit.

Witryol said she does not see how the DEC can expect the company to monitor itself when it has exhibited a willingness to perform work without permits.

“Now the DEC has effectively suspended that supervision for months with a company so brazen that it put a smoke stack up without a permit,” Witryol said.

The letter goes on to list other concerns tied to the company’s planned expansion that will allow them to accept waste from the New York City Department of Sanitation by rail.

The company reached an agreement with the New York City Department of Sanitation in late August which will see the company accept 1 million tons of waste per year for the next 20 years, with the option for two five-year extensions.

As much as half of that waste would come to the Niagara plant, according to a term sheet tied to the contract.

In the letter, the residents also ask Martens to consider a request from local block clubs and the local chapter of the NAACP that the DEC conduct a cumulative impact study for the area around the plant, citing New York State Department of Health data that lists Niagara County as the county with the second highest mortality rate from asthma in the state behind only the Bronx.

James Regan, a Covanta spokesman, said the plant operates within state guidelines and continues to be subject to the same state laws and monitoring that have been in place, and will continue to run emissions monitoring systems, despite the lack of a state monitor.

Regan stressed that the company has nothing to do with replacing the monitor, but will continue to follow state laws in his absence, writing in an email that, “the facility continues to be monitored and highly regulated. Facility monitoring is in no way limited to just one on-site NYDEC regulator/monitor.”

Big red number $162K Amount Covanta provided for the DEC monitor position for the state fiscal year 2013-14

Contact reporter Justin Sondel at 282-2311, ext. 2257