Editor’s note: Investigative Post and the Niagara Gazette share selected stories, including the following report from Mark Scheer, who previously worked for Investigative Post.
A federal agency has put a hold on a permit for construction of a piece of infrastructure critical to the development of a sprawling industrial park in Genesee County.
An official representing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has informed the Tonawanda Seneca Nation that it intends to take another look at the potential environmental impact of a wastewater pipeline that would connect a 1,250-acre industrial park in rural Genesee County to Oak Orchard Creek and Lake Ontario.
In a May 15 letter to the Tonawanda Council of Chiefs, Holly Gaboriault, acting regional chief for the National Wildlife Refuge System, said her agency plans to initiate a supplemental environmental assessment for a right-of-way permit needed to drill on the Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge where the pipeline would be located.
The Genesee County Economic Development Center secured the right-of-way permit in 2021 but has yet to proceed with construction.
Leaders from the Tonawanda Seneca Nation, as well as local wildlife advocates, have protested plans to build the pipeline. If constructed, the pipeline would carry millions of gallons of wastewater per day from the Science, Technology and Advanced Manufacturing Park, commonly known as the STAMP.
Nation leaders have expressed concern about continued development at STAMP and its potential impact on neighboring Tonawanda Seneca territory, including an old-growth forest area known as “The Big Woods.” Two years ago, the Tonawanda Senecas sued to stop development there. The lawsuit ended in a settlement that protected 200 acres of land adjacent to the STAMP site, among other concessions.
In her letter, Gaboriault indicates that while her agency proceeds with its environmental assessment, the current right of way permit for pipeline construction through the wildlife refuge will be suspended “until a new decision is made.”
“The Tonawanda Seneca Nation commends [the National Wildlife Refuge System] for its determination that environmental impacts of the proposed sewage pipeline must be reviewed and that the 2021 permit should be suspended during this review period,” said Linda Logan, Tonawanda Seneca Nation citizen and Bear Clan Mother.
“As the original inhabitants of this area, the Nation is especially concerned about the damage the pipeline and associated industrial facilities would do to the wetlands, the waters, the plants, the animals and the environment on and around the Nation and our ancestral territory.”
Jim Krencik, a spokesperson for the development agency, said the organization has not been alerted to any suspension and continues to proceed as if the right-of-way permit remains in place. He said the agency “has a valid permit and [right-of-way] in place” and “has not been notified of anything to the contrary.”
Genesee County’s economic development agency has so far spent more than $30 million in mostly state money from former Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion program on STAMP, which has been under development for more than a decade.
With help from the state and federal government, the agency has attempted to position the industrial site as a potential landing spot for a large-scale microchip manufacturing operation. Their efforts have been lauded by some of the most prominent voices in state and federal politics and government, including Gov. Kathy Hochul and U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-New York.
While they have yet to sign up any chip-making operations, Genesee County economic development officials have secured commitments from two tenants at the STAMP, including Plug Power, a hydrogen fuel production company, and, more recently, Edwards Vacuum, a British company that specializes in vacuum equipment.
Schumer announced last year that he lobbied Edwards Vacuum to locate at STAMP following the passage of the federal CHIPS and Science Act.
Plug Power initially announced plans to invest $291 million to develop a “green hydrogen” facility that would have created 68 jobs at STAMP. With hydropower from the New York Power Authority and other subsidies, those jobs would come at a public cost of $4 million per job.
NYPA’s board of trustees recently approved an allocation of 50 megawatts of low-cost hydropower for what Plug Power officials say will be an additional $387 million expansion that would add 19 positions to the number of jobs originally promised, while boosting production at the STAMP from 45 tons to 74 tons of hydrogen per day.
“It will be one of the largest, if not the largest, green hydrogen production plants in North America when it’s finished,” Steve Hyde, president and CEO of the Genesee County Economic Development Center, told the Buffalo News following the announcement about the authority’s hydropower award.
Edwards Vacuum announced in November that it intends to build a $319 million dry pump manufacturing facility at STAMP.
Hyde, Hochul, Schumer and other project advocates have hailed development efforts at STAMP as environmentally friendly and in keeping with statewide efforts to reduce New York’s carbon footprint.
Tonawanda Seneca leaders and local wildlife advocates strongly disagree.
Dozens of STAMP critics attended a May 11 hearing to speak out against the development agency’s application to the state Department of Environmental Conservation for another permit that would allow the agency to use 665 acres for additional development.
Wildlife advocates argued during the hearing that the land serves as vital habitat for endangered and threatened species, including the short-eared owl and the northern harrier.
“This project is ill-considered and should never have been allowed to move forward,” said Ellen Cardone-Banks, conservation chair of the Sierra Club Atlantic Chapter. “It is a violation of environmental justice principles that the state claims, however belatedly, to embrace.”