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Biomass bid raises old beefs at hearing Falls plant would go from coal to wood

Two city residents told an official with the Niagara County Industrial Development Agency this week that a coal-burning power plant on Frontier Avenue has been a nuisance to its residential neighbors for years.

The comments came during a public hearing Monday on a plan to offer several tax breaks to USRG Niagara Biomass, a subsidiary of U.S. Renewables Group of Santa Monica, Calif., which wants to buy the 52-megawatt plant for $31 million and convert it to burn clean wood instead of coal.

Frontier Avenue resident Chris Kudela said he had a number of environmental questions about air quality, noise and smells regarding the new process, but was told that the hearing was only for comments on the financial incentives being offered.

The Niagara Falls Planning Board approved a site plan last week for the conversion and the $7.8 million in planned renovations to the site at 5380 Frontier Ave., which would include new silos for wood storage and conveyor belts.

"They're not changing much except the material going into the plant and adding conveyors," City Senior Planner Thomas DeSantis said Tuesday. "In terms of what comes out of the smokestack, it will be certainly less toxic. It will be cleaner."

He said the company doesn't have to obtain a new air permit from the state Department of Environmental Conservation because the plant has a multifuel license that includes clean wood. The company plans to use tree limbs and chips, untreated scrap lumber and similar materials to fuel the steam generators.

The Town of Lewiston signed a contract with the company last year that will allow it to take the town's waste brush and wood at no charge in return for removing the material. Town Highway Superintendent Steven L. Reiter said he expects the company will begin taking 350 tons of wood per week beginning in May or June.

"I pick [the wood] up normally," Reiter said. "But instead of paying to grind it, they'll grind it for me and take it away, but also leave a small amount of mulch for our residents."

DeSantis expects that once the plant is converted to wood fuel, it will produce less smell than the former coal process, although noise likely will be the same.

"We have to be in compliance with the applicable environmental regulations," said Gary Palumbo of URS Buffalo, a subcontractor for Niagara Biomass that dealt with the local environmental compliance and permitting. Palumbo attended Monday's hearing.

Kudela said noise and dust have been bothering nearby residents for years.

"There's a group of people who have reported the noise to the police station 20 to 30 times in the last 10 years," he said. "When those turbines trip in the middle of the night, it's like a B-52 taking off."

Vince Mameli, another resident who lives near the plant, spoke against the deal at the hearing because he said he would rather see tax breaks to bring in tourism-related business.

There are 18 years left on the payment-in-lieu-of-taxes deal the IDA set up in 1999 for Central Hudson Resources at the plant. USRG wants to increase that to 20 years but would increase payments in years six through 20.

The plant currently has 19 employees, which would be increased to 25 within three years, according to the application.

If the IDA approves the sale and tax breaks, work to convert the plant would begin this spring. The next meeting of the IDA is Feb. 15, and the agency may vote on the application then.

The plant currently sells steam to local industry. It hasn't been announced who would buy electrical power from the converted plant. U.S. Renewables officials weren't available to comment on Tuesday.

e-mail: gfranklin@buffnews.com

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