The Tonawanda Seneca Nation is urging the Biden administration to reject a $1.6 billion loan sought by hydrogen producer Plug Power, alleging the company is evading federal environmental reviews at its planned Genesee County facility.
At issue is what Plug Power will spend the money on should the federal government approve its loan application later this year. Company executives have discussed the loan as essential for the company after it filed a statement with the Securities and Exchange Commission in November which stated “substantial doubt that we will have sufficient capital to fund our operations through the next 12 months.”
In its initial application, Plug Power proposed spending a portion of the loan on its plant under construction at the Science, Technology and Advanced Manufacturing Park (STAMP), which borders Tonawanda Seneca Nation territory. That facility would use discounted electricity from the New York Power Authority to split water molecules to generate hydrogen. The company sells hydrogen batteries to companies including Amazon and Walmart.
In a letter to the U.S. Department of Energy last week, Tonawanda Seneca Nation Chief Roger Hill said Plug Power has not been truthful about its plans for the loan money and its facility at STAMP. Hill asserts that Plug Power amended its loan application to say it would not use any of the money at its STAMP facility. That would enable it to avoid reviews under the National Environmental Protection Act and the National Historic Preservation Act.
But, Hill noted, CEO Andy Marsh told The Buffalo News in November that Plug Power would use the loan money at STAMP to “get that plant online.” And on a call with investors last week, Marsh said the DOE loan “will play a pivotal role in scheduling our forthcoming plants in Texas and New York.”
“Plug has desecrated ancestral Seneca territory and now seeks to leverage [DOE Loan Program Office] funding to stay in business while evading federal review of the impacts of its proposed facility in Western New York on the Nation,” Hill wrote.
“They’re not being truthful to somebody,” he added in an interview with Investigative Post.
Plug Power’s STAMP facility — a $232 million investment for the company — is slated to benefit substantially from public assistance. In 2021, the New York Power Authority and Genesee County Economic Development Center approved tax breaks and power subsidies valued at $270 million. The company plans to hire 68 workers, which equates to $4 million in subsidies per job.
Hill, in his letter, questioned how federal officials could ensure that Plug Power wouldn’t use loan money on the STAMP facility. Another concern: Failure to conduct the environmental and preservation studies could lead to harm to the Nation’s territory.
“We have seen time and again that developers have sought to evade federal review by narrowly and sometimes misleadingly characterizing the scope of their projects, to the detriment of the Nation,” Hill wrote.
The Nation has already sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over a permit it granted for a wastewater pipeline running through the Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge that’s essential to STAMP operations.
The Plug Power plant borders a forest that tribal members use for hunting, fishing and gathering plants. Hill said he worries that any kind of industrial disaster could irreparably harm the Nation’s land.
“We can’t move to anywhere else, this is all the land we have left,” he said.
Alex Page, an attorney who represents the Nation, noted that in addition to Plug Power seeking the loan, other STAMP tenants have indicated they’ll seek other forms of federal assistance, making it imperative for the government to engage with the Nation.
“The United States should honor its treaty relationship with the Tonawanda Seneca Nation and enter into consultations with the Nation that include a robust review of how an industrial development next to the Nation’s territory will affect the Nation, its people, the environment, and future generations,” she told Investigative Post.
A spokesperson for Plug Power did not respond to a request for comment for this story. A spokesperson for the Loan Program Office declined to comment on Hill’s letter, but confirmed the agency had received it and is working on a response.