by Terry Duffy
Needless to say, these have been busy times of late for the northern Niagara County citizens environmental group Residents for Responsible Government. With anticipation building on an expected decision by the state Department of Environmental Conservation to determine the future of hazardous waste landfiller CWM Chemical Services, RRG has been pulling out all the stops.
Currently, CWM is awaiting the outcome of what is called a "notice of complete application" by DEC, which if favorable would then set the stage for the scheduling of public hearings on expansion and the appointing of a long-awaited siting board by the governor to ultimately determine CWM's fate, according to CWM spokesperson Lori Caso. Ultimate approval would mean a green light by DEC to CWM's long-term operations plans, expansion and a new Residuals Management Unit 2 landfill in Porter.
"Until there's a complete 'notice of application' there's no action," said Caso. She anticipates some action by DEC following the elections, come mid-November.
At present CWM's RMU-1 landfill is fast approaching capacity, with about a year of space and operating time remaining. Hazardous waste landfilling in Porter has declined substantially and the company is stretching out the current RMU-1 landfill's shelf life with greatly reduced incoming truck shipments. While the DEC announced in August its approval of CWM's application for renewal of the DEC 6 NYCRR Part 373 overall site wide/RMU-1 permit, any action on RMU-2 remains under review. And should the state not decide in its favor, Waste Management-owned CWM faces the strong prospect of closing down permanently.
It's an outcome that RRG, organized in the early 2000s following an unfavorable zoning vote by the Town of Porter for CWM, has long been fighting for.
Over past weeks, RRG has turned up the heat, both on the Town of Lewiston and the Niagara County Legislature, to take action. A strong contingent of RRG members and supporters filled Lewiston Town Hall at the Lewiston Town Board's work session on Oct. 7. At issue was a call for the Lewiston Town Board to resume funding in the town's 2014 budget for environmental attorney Gary Abraham. The Alleghany-based attorney had long been representing the county and local interests, including Lewiston's, in the fight against CWM's expansion plans. However, it was revealed that while Lewiston is on record as opposing CWM expansion, it has failed to fund its share to the county over the past four years under the administration of Supervisor Steve Reiter, according to RRG.
A strong RRG presence that evening prompted action by the Lewiston Town Board as Reiter hastily directed Councilman Ernie Palmer to present a motion, calling for creation of an Environmental Protection Fund to retain Abraham with Lewiston contributing $50,000 from its 2014 budget and the balance to come from the county and/or other communities. The Lewiston Town Board approved the measure unanimously.
Next came a visit by RRG to the Niagara County Legislature Oct. 15 session in Lockport. RRG activists showed up in force, again to address the issue of funding environmental attorney Abraham for his ongoing work in representing the interests of the county against a proposed expansion by CWM.
"Attorney Abraham, a nationally known and respected environmental lawyer, has been working jointly for the county and Town of Lewiston for the last seven years and been putting a case together using hydrologists, land use experts and other professionals in the field. With the DEC beginning the siting board process and hearings soon, RRG is concerned that funding to pay for legal representation be in place so that attorney Abraham can move forward with his crucial defense for Lewiston-Porter," said RRG spokesman Tim Henderson of Lewiston.
A resolution was presented that night by District 2 Legislator Bill Ross of Lewiston/Wheatfield and District 1 Legislator Clyde Burmaster of Porter, calling on the county to continue funding Abraham as it has in the past. A number of RRG members and proponents spoke, urging funding approval by the legislature, including RRG President April Fideli, Nils Olsen, an attorney and former dean of the UB Law School who has been involved in past legal efforts, former Lewiston-Porter School Board member Wendy Swearingen, Henderson, and former Niagara County Legislator Lee Simonson of Lewiston. All spoke in support of continuing with Abraham.
However, following lengthy deliberations, the Republican majority of the legislature returned with its decision to table the matter until after the election so they could meet with Abraham directly in mid-November. District 12 Legislator Richard Updegrove of Lockport, speaking for the GOP majority, said that the legislature, while remaining in firm opposition to CWM's landfill expansion plans, had wanted to hear more on Abraham's actual efforts over past years and his expectations for the future battle and outcome before committing funding.
Commenting on their action, Abraham said, "Some members of the legislature have questioned what I'm doing, and it's unclear whether they oppose it or they are simply unaware of what I'm doing."
The action disappointed RRG and Burmaster, who went on to scold the decision. "If this stuff is so safe, it should stay at its point of origin. There is a reason it's called hazardous waste," said Burmaster, adding, "and Lewiston and Porter's cancer rates continue to rise every day CWM continues to operate."
And RRG went on to make its displeasure public last Friday, Oct. 18, organizing a press conference/rally in Lockport and calling for the legislature to live up to its commitment. "We thank the legislators for their long-standing opposition to toxic dumping," Fideli said. "But we're concerned about the decision to delay their payment to environmental attorney Abraham."
She pointed that recently RRG had sponsored a phone survey in Lewiston that revealed that more than 80 percent of town residents polled were in favor of funding the attorney and continuing their fight for environmental justice. Fideli also noted that the Lewiston Town Board had just committed $50,000 in a special fund to pay Abraham and his team of experts for their professional services in fighting CWM's request for expansion. She also raised the issue of questionable outside funding influences to the Niagara County GOP and local campaigns and their purpose.
"The County Legislature should not be playing politics with peoples' lives," said Fideli "We are simply asking that after 40 years, our elected officials do their part to help us finally close the door on a practice that is both dangerous and depressing economically to our area."
Those words were echoed again this past week during a visit by renowned environmental activist Lois Gibbs of Virginia, formerly of Niagara Falls, who returned to join with Love Canal residents and commemorate the 35th anniversary of the environmental state of emergency at Love Canal and the forced evacuations. Gibbs commented that she "was surprised" that environmental issues such as the CWM expansion are still confronting the area, and urged residents "to turn up the political heat."
RRG, county and local interests plus area residents will soon find what's next in the CWM expansion battle when the state DEC releases its highly anticipated "notice of application."