Senecas sue over Genesee industrial park

Tribe sues over rural industrial park that it says would infringe on its territory. Lawsuit contends procedural shortcomings.

Efforts to develop a large industrial park in Genesee County using tens of millions of dollars from New York State’s Buffalo Billion program are facing a new challenge — a lawsuit filed by the Tonawanda Seneca Nation.

In a lawsuit filed Friday in state Supreme Court in Genesee County, the Nation is challenging the findings of the Genesee County Economic Development Center that determined, following a formal environmental review, that plans for the development of Plug Power’s new hydrogen fuel facility at its industrial park in the Town of Alabama would have no adverse impact on the nation’s territory as a “property of religious and cultural significance.” 

The lawsuit focuses on a particular area of the Tonawanda Seneca Nation’s territory known as the “Big Woods,” a dense forest area located on the western end of what’s formally known as the Science, Technology and Advanced Manufacturing Park, a 1,250-acre industrial site under development in the rural Town of Alabama. Tonawanda Seneca leaders describe the “Big Woods” as “sacred” hunting grounds and argue that the Plug Power project represents an infringement on the nation’s territory. 

“The impact of the project — including the additional noise and smells related to additional people in the area, diesel machinery and general operations — will diminish the Big Woods as a pristine hunting ground,” said Kenith Jonathan, Sachem Chief for the Wolf Clan of the Tonawanda Seneca Nation and keeper of the Western Door. “Animals will be scared away from the area and I fear that the hunting will be less productive.”

Genesee County economic development officials are drawing on $33 million set aside as part of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion program. So far they have invested $26 million in the development of STAMP as a possible landing spot for various manufacturing operations, including those involved in high-tech industries like microchip production. The site has been under development for more than a decade. 

Plug Power is scheduled to become STAMP’s first commercial tenant. The company has agreed to build a $55 million substation that would provide electricity to the company’s hydrogen fuel production plant as well as future tenants at STAMP. 

In exchange for creating 68 full-time jobs, Plug Power is in line for an estimated $270 million in tax breaks and power discounts representing a subsidy equal to more than $4 million per job

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In its lawsuit, the Tonawanda Seneca Nation challenges a resolution approved Feb. 2 by the board for the Genesee County Economic Development Center that found “all potential impacts” associated with the Plug Power project had been “adequately addressed” and no further compliance was needed under New York’s Environmental Quality Review Act. 

The lawsuit argues that the agency failed to consult with the Nation prior to authorizing the resolution. The Nation contends the economic development agency provided information about the project during a meeting held the day after the resolution was approved, but “withheld the fact” that the action had already been taken. 

The Nation also challenges a March 25 resolution approved by the board that ratified the completion of the environmental review process while granting Plug Power state and local tax exemptions totaling more than $13 million for the project. The lawsuit also contends that the agency failed to notify the nation of a March 22 public hearing on the matter. 

“The Plug Power project is being touted as a green development initiative, but development of a manufacturing mega-site adjacent to the Nation’s Territory endangers both the environment and the cultural traditions and practices of the Tonawanda Seneca people,” said Laura Berglan, a senior attorney with Earthjustice, a nonprofit public interest law organization that is representing the Nation. 

“A thorough environmental review that considers the impacts to the Tonawanda Seneca Nation, and animals and plants on which the Tonawanda Seneca people rely, must be conducted in accordance with the law,” she said.

Officials with the Genesee County Economic Development Center — who have for months refused requests to be interviewed by Investigative Post — did not immediately respond to a request for comment.