Following a state Supreme Court lawsuit over a critical piece of infrastructure for its Science, Technology and Advanced Manufacturing Park, the Genesee County Economic Development Center has begun a public relations campaign.
Beginning last week, just days after Orleans County sued the neighboring agency to block a sewage pipeline that would discharge across county lines, Genesee County EDC placed advertisements and letters to the editor in local news publications in an effort to defend its industrial park.
The agency also published a new page on its website defending the wastewater pipeline. The advertisements link to the new webpage.
There’s just one problem: Some of the ads — and parts of the webpage — are not entirely true.
As currently planned and permitted, the sewer line will run from the 1,250-acre STAMP site in Genesee County, across the county line and end in the Town of Shelby, discharging into Oak Orchard Creek. The creek drains into Lake Ontario and is a key piece of the fishing and tourism industry in Orleans County. Genesee County EDC officials have said that once STAMP is fully built the pipeline could carry as much as 6 million gallons of treated wastewater per day.
Orleans County, fearing the impact the pipeline could have on the creek and its economy, sued the Genesee County EDC last week, arguing that the economic development agency should not be allowed to use eminent domain in a county not its own. On Monday, Judge Sanford Church issued a temporary restraining order, blocking construction of the pipeline in Orleans County.
It’s against this backdrop that the Genesee County EDC is running its ads and placing its public letters.
So far, the ads have appeared on the websites of the Orleans Hub and The Batavian, news outlets that serve Orleans County and Genesee County, respectively. The agency has published one letter to the editor in the Orleans Hub and one in The Buffalo News to date.
Orleans Hub editor Tom Rivers said the agency has so far purchased five “sponsored posts” on the publication’s website for around $100 each. Each post appears in the outlet’s news feed for several hours before “they fall off,” he said. Howard Owens, publisher of The Batavian, refused to discuss the sponsored posts Genesee County EDC has purchased with his publication.
One of the ads appearing in both publications claims that the sewer line for STAMP will be “protective of water quality for all flow conditions. No adverse impacts or impairments to Oak Orchard Creek.”
That claim runs counter to Investigative Post’s reporting. On Tuesday, Investigative Post detailed how Oak Orchard Creek has been on the “impaired” waterways list — a list the state Department of Environmental Conservation is required to maintain under the federal Clean Water Act — since at least 1998. The creek has been listed as “impaired,” or polluted, by phosphorus the whole time.
Experts have warned that STAMP’s wastewater, even treated, will contain phosphorus. That means that STAMP’s wastewater discharge into Oak Orchard Creek could violate the Clean Water Act.
“Simply, [STAMP’s wastewater pipeline] is a new discharger and seeks to discharge into an impaired waterbody. This is expressly prohibited by the Clean Water Act,” attorney Margaux Valenti, legal director for the Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper, wrote to the Genesee County EDC in a July letter.
In a Sept. 13 letter to the editor published on Orleans Hub’s website, Steven Hyde, president and CEO of the Genesee County EDC, and Peter Zeliff, chairman of the agency’s board, wrote that the pipeline “won’t hurt Oak Orchard [or] Orleans economic development.”
“Multiple engineering studies and peer engineering and environmental regulatory reviews have been conducted to assess potential impacts of discharging this treated water into the creek,” the letter states. “This process is similar to how municipalities treat water before it is discharged into local waterways.”
The pair added: “We would not advocate for something that would be detrimental to our partners as we all are working collaboratively to bring prosperity to our region.”
While it’s true that Genesee County EDC has conducted engineering and hydrology studies of how its pipeline could affect the creek, it’s never studied the impact its wastewater could have on the creek’s water quality. Neither has the state DEC. Genesee County EDC could have addressed the matter during its State Environmental Quality Review but did not. DEC, under the Clean Water Act, must eventually determine how much phosphorus is allowed to enter the creek, but has not done so yet.
On its new webpage, Genesee County EDC makes further claims that any phosphorus it discharges is in compliance with all regulations. Hyde, the CEO, makes similar claims in a Buffalo News letter.
This is partially true and partially not.
It is true that DEC last September granted a wastewater discharge permit for STAMP’s pipeline. But the state agency issued that permit on a faulty basis. When issuing the permit, DEC assumed that STAMP’s wastewater would replace phosphorus-containing agricultural runoff in Oak Orchard Creek, resulting in no net change. But there was no existing agricultural runoff entering the creek from the STAMP site, meaning STAMP’s wastewater would be a new discharge, and therefore not allowed by law.
DEC has since told Genesee County EDC that it must find ways to offset its phosphorus discharge. The EDC’s lawyers have argued that any mitigations would be “unlawful and unnecessary.”
Representatives from Genesee County EDC have refused to answer questions from Investigative Post about STAMP’s wastewater discharge. A request for comment for this story went unanswered.