Environmental regulators slow on the draw (again)

News and analysis by Dan Telvock, Investigative Post's environmental reporter
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Covanta constructed this smokestack at its Niagara plant without the air permit.

The Department of Environmental Conservation has ordered Covanta Niagara to stop construction of a natural gas boiler and a 190-foot smokestack in Niagara Falls because it hasn’t obtained the required air permit.

Covanta, which has spent more than $820,000 over the past three years in campaign contributions and lobbying expenses, started construction months before the public comment period on the project closes on Monday.

The notice of violation came less than 48 hours after three Niagara County residents raised concerns about the the DEC’s oversight of the Niagara County waste-to-energy plant’s $30 million expansion project, as first reported by the Niagara Gazette.

Covanta’s proposal involves a rail transfer station that would allow it to haul garbage from New York City. The project includes a new waste facility, the new boiler and a steam pipeline to deliver steam to nearby industry, including the Greenpac paper mill.

Jill Stueck
, a Covanta spokeswoman, said the company was taking a risk by beginning construction that the DEC knew had started without the permit. She said the company was not going to use the boiler and smokestack until it had the permit, but has now stopped all work on the project.

“Any construction we did was in concurrence with the DEC,” she said. “There was no intent to deceive or hide our activity.”

DEC spokesman Peter Constantakes countered that the ”DEC requires a permit to be in place and the company was aware of that.”

The notice of violation states the DEC reported in a May 13 biweekly monitoring report that construction had commenced, but doesn’t provide any detail as to why it waited until three Niagara County residents raised concerns before taking action. Covanta faces a penalty of up to $18,000 and an additional $15,000 for each day construction continues.

Niagara County residents Amy Witryol, Shirley Hamilton and Christopher Kudela wrote the DEC on July 30 asking the agency to halt the construction and dismantle the smokestack and boiler.

“The DEC read about it in the newspaper and really had no choice but to issue a violation,” Witryol said. “Is this another example of a self-regulating industry?”

Covanta has spent heavily in Albany.

The New Jersey based company has spent $767,527 on lobbying state and local officials since January 2010, according to state records. During that same period, Covanta contributed $60,870 to state legislators, including $4,700 to Sen. George Maziarz, who represents most of Niagara County. Maziarz is chairman of the Energy and Telecommunications Committee.

“Regulation is sometimes selectively enforced and sometimes there are political pressures or economic pressures,” Witryol said. ”This raises much larger questions about whether we can trust this company with the safety of what it is  putting into our air.”

Stueck said the contributions and lobbying have no bearing on the ongoing project.

“We have not asked any state legislators for any help on any aspect of this project,” she said. “That’s not to say we don’t brief them as a part of our normal outreach, but we did not ask anyone to intervene.”

This is at least the third time that the DEC has come under local scrutiny for not aggressively enforcing regulations.

The most notable example involves Tonawanda Coke, which a federal jury found guilty in March of violating the Clean Air Act.

Last November, Investigative Post reported on the DEC’s lax enforcement of anti-idling rules at the Peace Bridge.