By Michael DePietro
Last week, the Niagara County Planning Board voted unanimously to reject a plan for an asphalt plant at 4660 Witmer Road in the Town of Niagara. It was the latest setback for AL Asphalt, the company behind the project.
The company received a go-ahead by the Town of Niagara last July. However, all previous OKs were rescinded last month after it was revealed New York state guidelines required county approval for the project since the site borders the City of Niagara Falls, Town of Lewiston and Niagara University. Following that decision, the DEC announced the status of AL’s air permit application is on hold pending “additional SEQRA review by the town/county and DEC.”
During the meeting, board member Walt Garrow led the questioning and ultimately recommended the board reject the project.
Roseanne DiPizio, general manager for the project, represented the company during the meeting. In a phone call this week, she said she took issue with many of the board’s conclusions.
“I disagree with the Niagara County Board. And all my experts and my expert reports disagree,” she said.
Among her main points of contention since public backlash against the plant began was that the Town of Niagara already has an asphalt plant – Lafarge Niagara on Quarry Road. Additionally, she pointed out 11 total asphalt facilities in operation across Western New York.
“I'd be doing the exact same thing that everyone else is currently doing today. No different. If what I'm doing is so bad, then why aren't they shutting down the other 11?” DiPizio said. Elsewhere she stated bluntly: “I feel like AL asphalt is being discriminated against and I don't know why.”
Among the board’s concerns were fugitive emissions of potential volatile organic compounds (VOCs), including benzyne.
DiPizio said those concerns were addressed in the DEC draft permit.
“The equipment itself and the operation had a draft permit from the DEC, so that was an indication of emission control pursuant to the New York State DEC guidelines. They wouldn't have issued (the permit) if the plant was going to emit VOCs at a level that would be harmful,” she said.
DiPizio attempted to quell concerns about the fugitive emission points – points where dust and fine particulates escape the filtering process – during the meeting: “It's why they took eight months to approve us. The DEC has gone through all of the intricate questions of our equipment and has calculated all of those emissions points and determined that any of those will be within or below any standards necessary.”
“Once the material is produced … you actually emit more from the back of the paver as you're paving routes, which are being done right in front of houses.”
On Wednesday she added, “Neighborhoods don't have to evacuate (when roads are being paved). And what about the workers behind (the trucks)? They don’t have to wear special equipment. My father walked behind a paver for 30 years.”
Garrow also questioned fire safety. He cited “literature” that shows a number of asphalt plant fires and explosions over the years. He also expressed concern that the road, two 12-foot lanes, would impede fire department vehicles from getting to the site in the event of a fire. He chided a lack of firefighting foam and a lack of fire hydrants on-site.
DiPizio noted the roadway was the size of a regular two-lane road and also said the state doesn’t require firefighting foam on site. She did admit she was unsure of whether the site had hydrants. DiPizio went on to explain the system has automatic shutoffs at various points in case of fire and said she was unaware of explosions at asphalt facilities, particularly in Western New York.
At the time of publication, the Tribune/Sentinel couldn’t ascertain the number of asphalt plant explosions in the U.S., but did find a number of examples online where explosions did occur at asphalt facilities. However, it cannot say with certainty how similar the facilities are to the proposed AL Asphalt facility or whether the causes of those blasts could occur here.
For example, in 2017, after the Mohawk Asphalt Emulsions plant in Schenectady (the closest explosion the Tribune could find in recent years) experienced two explosions in less than a year, the company indicated the cause was linked to a kerosene solution that was also produced on site.
The Niagara County Planning Board also questioned whether the proposed site was actually zoned to produce asphalt. Members said the Town of Niagara zoning code lists the SIC codes for 31 allowable uses. Asphalt – SIC code 2951 – is not listed. DiPizio said the company had not been aware of that when it submitted plans to the town, nor was it told about the issue when that municipal board approved the project.
In April, Town of Niagara Supervisor Lee Wallace said the plan was approved based on the site’s H1 (heavy industrial) zoning, meaning the project was not expected to require variances.
Amid the pushback, DiPizio said she is open to other possible locations that might not invoke public backlash. During the meeting, she said the company was considering 3535 Hyde Park Blvd., as a possible alternative location and had approached Niagara University about its position. She said the university’s attorneys did not like that plan either.
“Everybody's agreeing that we need asphalt. Everybody's agreeing that it can be made prudently and within the New York State DEC guidelines. … But everybody's saying this isn't the right site,” DiPizio said. “… So I guess the question is, ‘Where can we go?’ ”
DiPizio said she hoped someone from the town or county would propose alternative sites, but so far they have not.
“Why won't they have a discussion with me and say, ‘OK, Roseanne. We've changed our mind on this location, but we've looked at other locations within the town and you can put your plant up here’ – wherever that is,” she said. “You would think they would help me to find an answer to this problem. I'm talking about a legal operation, not an illegal operation. I'm talking about something we need. I'm talking about a WBE (woman-owned business enterprise) operation, which is supposed to be helped. We'd be the only WBE (asphalt company) in New York state. …
“There's got to be somewhere else where I can go talk to somebody, buy that piece of property, and put it up. The silence and being basically ignored is perplexing to me. I'm not hollering and screaming. I appreciate that they no longer like this location. So, let's just find another one together. And I get nothing.”
Since the county’ decision, DiPizio said the current proposal is in “limbo” as it will have to go before the Town of Niagara once again. However, she said the company still intends to pursue the town in some capacity. She noted again that the DEC’s findings show the facility would not pose adverse environmental or health risks, per state regulations.
She also said the company is still pursuing the Town of Hamburg, an earlier proposal that ended similarly with pushback from the surrounding community. DiPizio said the company is still in the process of completing an Environmental Impact Statement that was deemed required by the Hamburg Planning Board in 2019.
“It was a question on whether or not we wanted to continue working on that (in Hamburg) and fight a battle or get to work. We tried to get to work. We found another location (in the Town of Niagara). We were approved last June. We got the DEC permit going. We were excited we were going to get to work. We did not see this coming,” DiPizio said. “We'd be almost done erecting the plant by now. ...
“I just want to go to work. I just want to make asphalt. A product. A necessary product that everyone likes to drive on. A necessary product that the New York State DOT and all the municipalities used to pave their roads. I just want to go to work.”