Jul 13


Company seeking subsidies circulates fake study

Plastics manufacturer gave Lockport IDA board members a summary of a study that touted the safety of one of its products. No such study existed; it was made up by an artificial intelligence program.

A plastics manufacturer seeking tax breaks to build a plant in Lockport has put its application on hold after being called out Thursday for circulating a summary of a study that was fabricated and produced by artificial intelligence.

Prior to a public hearing Thursday, the India-based firm SRI CV Plastics, seeking $312,000 in subsidies from the Lockport Industrial Development Agency, provided the agency’s board a one-page summary of a study that touted the safety of PVC pipes, one of the products the company plans to make at the plant.

A University at Buffalo professor, Lourdes Vera, called out the company’s study summary at Thursday’s hearing as a fake.

“I do not trust this company and this information that they’re distributing,” Vera said at the hearing.

Maureen Winters, the IDA’s administrative assistant, confirmed the study summary was included in a packet of documents distributed to board members ahead of the public hearing. The board took no action on the company’s subsidy request Thursday, citing the volume of information and public input board members had received about the project.

Terry Burton, the company’s attorney, issued an email statement later in the day acknowledging the study summary “was never verified as being accurate or correct.

“I believe we are dealing with both a communication issue and a failure on our part to ensure that only accurate and complete information is provided to the Lockport IDA,” Burton said.

The company, he said, was deferring its subsidy request to the IDA “until we can provide an explanation of why this ‘study’ was presented to the Lockport IDA in the first place.”

The summary stated the study was conducted by University of California, Berkeley researchers and concluded that PVC pipes “are a safe and environmentally responsible choice.”

Vera, an environmental sociologist, said she recognized the journal name — Environmental Science & Technology — and went to look up the article to read it in full.

Vera said she could not find the study. It was not included in the issue of Environmental Science & Technology that the summary said it did. That’s when she began to grow suspicious. 

She suspected the summary had been written by an artificial intelligence program, like ChatGPT. As a professor, she said she’s had to confront students for using artificial intelligence software for homework assignments.

“Then I ran the summary through a ChatGPT detector, and it was written by AI,” Vera said at Thursday’s hearing.

Investigative Post obtained a copy of the study summary and independently verified the text was generated by artificial intelligence. Vera said she used the website ZeroGPT — a tool for detecting text generated by artificial intelligence — to detect the fake, which Investigative Post also used. The website reported that 71 percent of the summary text was written by artificial intelligence, and gave both Vera and Investigative Post the same result.

Copyleaks, another website that detects text written by artificial intelligence, further concluded the text was generated by a computer program.

Vera said it was possible that the company itself was duped by the artificial intelligence. But even in that case, she said, sharing a summary of a fake academic article was troubling.

“Giving them the benefit of the doubt, perhaps they didn’t know that,” she said. “But they did not do their due diligence.”

Another University at Buffalo professor who attended Thursday’s hearing, Tom Covey, said the use of artificial intelligence to generate a fake summary of an academic article should disqualify the company from IDA subsidies.

“That’s a non-starter,” Covey, a Lockport native, said. 

The company, he said, cannot be trusted “long-term to be transparent about the effects that are going to affect the people of this town.”

It’s not clear when SRI CV Plastics’ application for subsidies will come back before the Lockport IDA board, which meets next in mid-August.

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The company is seeking to build a 14,000 square-foot plastics manufacturing plant in the Lockport Industrial Park that would produce plastic food packaging and PVC pipes. The company would employ 20 full-time and five part-time employees. 

Company CEO Varunkumar Velumani said the plant would make the food packaging out of 70 percent recycled plastic, but that it would also need to import so-called virgin plastic. 

Environmental groups, including Beyond Plastics, have protested the company’s project, for which it is seeking up to $500,000 in public subsidies. A group of 62 environmental groups signed a June 29 letter asking the board to reject the company’s application.

It’s not clear where additional subsidies could come from beyond the Lockport IDA, though the project may be eligible for low-cost hydropower from the New York Power Authority and tax breaks from Empire State Development Corp. 

Other testimony on Thursday focused on potential negative consequences of the plant.The firm has not yet begun its environmental permitting or review process, so it’s unknown how the plant could affect human health and the environment.

Covey on Thursday spoke against the project, warning about possible long-term health risks for Lockport residents. But he said the fabricated study summary was enough on its own for the IDA to nix the project.

“It should just be tossed out wholesale,” he said. “You don’t need to know anything more than that.”

Investigative Post

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