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Galvanizing plant in former Seneca Army Depot needs 50x more energy than estimated: Will NYSEG dig a new pipeline for it?

  • / Updated:
  • Peter Mantius 

Developers of a hot-dip steel galvanizing plant who minimized the project’s energy needs when they proposed it to regulators four years ago now say the plant needs at least 50 times as much power and a new natural gas pipeline.

Seneca Dairy Systems Inc. is constructing a 258,000-square-foot facility in the former Seneca Army Depot that will employ up to 300 people and supply large diaries with fencing and animal stalls.

While supporters tout the project’s job-creation benefits, critics say it appears to skirt two key state environmental laws.

“This is Exhibit A as to when the state Department of Environmental Conservation should weigh in with local governments and make sure they don’t undercut SEQRA (the State Environment Quality Review Act) and the state climate law (CLCPA, the Community Leadership and Climate Protection Act),” said Judith Enck, a former regional director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for New York and New Jersey.

In response to SDS’ request, NYSEG has asked the state Public Service Commission to approve installation of a 3,500-foot gas main to the plant site about one mile west of the K-12 Romulus Central School. The PSC is weighing the application.

Seneca Dairy’s estimates of future annual energy needs jumped from 2.9 billion BTUs in 2019 to 166 billion BTUs in 2022.

In 2019, SDS told the Seneca County Industrial Development Authority the plant would require only 850 megawatt hours of electricity per year — well below the 2,500 MWh threshold that triggers heightened environmental scrutiny. It did not mention a need for natural gas.

Then, based on the energy use estimate the company provided, SCIDA issued a legally binding ruling under SEQRA that the project would have no significant impact on the environment. That meant SDS did not need to prepare a full environmental impact statement for the project that developers said would be built in stages over 10 years.

But three years later, SDS owner Earl Martin told NYSEG that natural gas was “the only available fuel source that is economically viable” for the galvanizing plant. In a March 3, 2022 letter to NYSEG’s Nael Amireh, Martin estimated the project would actually need the energy equivalent of 6,000 tons of coal per year.

Measured in BTUs (British Thermal Units), 6,000 tons of coal produces more than 50 times the energy use estimate SDS had given SCIDA in 2019 and nearly 20 times the energy use that triggers a thorough regulatory review under SEQR.

“It certainly seems like some deception and/or gross incompetence,” Cornell professor Robert W. Howarth said of the wide gap between the energy use estimate that won the favorable regulatory decision in 2019 and the latest request by NYSEG on behalf of SDS.

Howarth said NYSEG’s bid for a new gas line to the galvanizing plant “certainly does not sound consistent with CLCPA.”

A member of the state Climate Action Council charged with implementing the climate change law, Howarth urged state senators in January to repeal laws that extend the state gas pipeline system by allowing for easy gas hookups. “I would think the CLCPA alone should be enough to lead to (the NYSEG/SDS application’s) demise.”

Last month, more than 50 state legislators urged Gov. Kathy Hochul to back a bill aimed at restricting natural gas hookups and ending subsidies that promote expanded gas infrastructure.

Sarah Davis, executive director of SCIDA, acknowledged that “utilities seem to be approaching new hookups a little bit differently” than in the past when routine approval was taken for granted.

Davis joined SCIDA in April 2020, months after the agency ruled that SDS could skip the environmental impact statement, which SEQR requires for any project that may have a potential impact on the environment.  

She praised the company’s steady progress, noting that it has completed construction of the galvanizing plant itself — Phase 1 of its three-phase, 10-year buildout. 

“There is not any active galvanizing going on currently because Mr. Martin is working with NYSEG to try to get a natural gas hookup,” she added. Phase 2 and 3 are separate buildings meant for manufacturing and assembly, she added.

“Seneca Dairy Systems has grown tremendously,” Davis said. “I believe when they first came to the IDA with their project the company had 35 employees or so. And now I think it’s just about 100. So it’s tremendous positive growth, and that’s the kind of thing we like to see in Seneca County.”

But others say they don’t like what they see. 

“Martin is just pulling the wool over people’s eyes, and we’re supposed to be gullible enough to trust him,” said Yvonne Taylor, vice president of Seneca Lake Guardian, a local environmental group. “At what point do people weigh the consequences of a few more jobs when there’s a long-term environmental impact?”

Cameron Hosmer, owner of Hosmer Winery on Cayuga Lake about 10 miles southeast of the SDS plant site, agrees.

“Here we go again. That former Army Depot is a real contentious piece of ground,” Hosmer said, pointing to its history as a one-time storage site for nuclear weapons and its continued status as a federal hazardous waste site. Five years ago, a Rochester developer tried (and failed) to win state approval to construct the state’s largest garbage incinerator less than one mile from the galvanizing plant.

Hosmer called it “ridiculous” that the state DEC allowed the local IDA to be the “lead agency” in the SEQR review process for the galvanizing plant, allowing it to make the crucial call that waived an environmental impact statement.

“We’re talking about a galvanizing plant sitting between the two lakes,” he said. 

In a Nov. 2 statement to WaterFront, the DEC said: “Based on information DEC received from the project sponsor during a June 4, 2019, pre-application meeting, it was determined DEC did not have a discretionary approval over the proposed project.”

An early version of the galvanizing plant, sited midway between Seneca and Cayuga lakes, is shown in a 2019 graphic

The IDA phrased it differently in a September 2019 resolution when it said: “None of the potentially interested and involved agencies (including DEC) objected to (SCIDA) acting as lead agency….”

Too often, the DEC’s sloughs off responsibility for environmental oversight to local agencies that are first and foremost geared to generating jobs, said Enck, the former EPA official who now serves as president of Beyond Plastics.

“This is part of a bigger problem with IDAs across the state,” Enck said. “They rubber stamp projects without doing thorough environmental reviews. The state legislature needs to intervene because this is out of control.”

Hosmer said he’s concerned the plant’s industrial wastewater and the storm water runoff from its roofs and parking lots will find its way into nearby Reeder Creek, perhaps Seneca Lake’s most polluted tributary.

“What exactly are you going to do with the runoff? And then how are you going to demonstrate that you are doing what you say you’re doing with that wastewater?” Hosmer said.

SDS stated in its application documents that all hazardous waste generated by the project would be “purified or recycled” and that no industrial wastewater would be discharged to the local wastewater plant, which empties into Reeder Creek.

The DEC told WaterFront that aside from so-called “sanitary discharges” (mostly from toilets and sinks), “there should be no other discharges from the proposed facility, according to the pre-application meeting and SEQR documentation.”

However, a June 10, 2019 memo written by an attorney for SDS showed that the agency was open to changing the rules later. “DEC staff also stated that once the sewer moratorium is lifted, and to the extent needed, SDS could obtain a Significant Industrial User Permit to discharge its industrial waste into the sewer system,” Lindsey E. Haubenreich of Phillips Lytle LLP wrote.

Martin did not respond to WaterFront’s phone and email messages, including emailed questions about industrial discharges.

Martin is developing the galvanizing project on 75 acres of the 7,000 acres at the former army depot that he bought from the IDA in 2016 for a reported $900,000.

He has provided estimates ranging from 166,000 to 300,000 square feet for the facility, which will including manufacturing, warehousing and office space as well as the galvanizing operation itself. A recent diagram prepared by NYSEG shows six connected structures with a total of 258,000 square feet. 

SDS already operates a smaller manufacturing facility on Hoster Road in Seneca Falls.

“The customer’s current galvanizing facility in Seneca Falls is fueled by coal and the customer plans to move all their operations to the facility in Romulus with hopes of transitioning their business to a cleaner fuel type,” NYSEG said in its July 7 petition for a permit to install the gas main.

The petition said SDS anticipates peak natural gas usage at 58,000 cubic feet per hour once construction is complete and the plant is fully operational.

While peak levels are not typically sustained, the annualized peak usage works out to 526 billion BTUs.