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County out on limb for tree grinder reimbursement State disappoints, but officials are calm

Niagara County has received reimbursement from the state for a giant grinder it bought several years ago -- but less than half of what it had anticipated.

The $114,800 check from the state Department of Environmental Conservation is a far cry from the $291,000 county officials had been expecting, but Richard P. Pope, Refuse Disposal District director, said he's not inclined to argue about it.

That's because the county has been earning money by renting the $600,000 hammer mill, which is commonly referred to as the Gruendler after its brand name, to municipalities.

"The revenue we got far outweighed the grant. The grant was just frosting on the cake," Pope said.

The refuse district used the machine to smash up 3,178 tons of fallen trees and limbs after the October Surprise snowstorm in 2006, renting the machine to North Tonawanda, Niagara Falls, Youngstown, Wilson and Wheatfield.

That was the Gruendler's finest hour. The county received about $170,000 in Federal Emergency Management Agency reimbursements after that.

Its use has continued; 1,027 tons of green wood were mashed by the unit last year, for example.

The machine also has been used to smash up material dumped in the county's own construction and demolition landfill -- 4,934 tons in the last three years.

By doing that, the county clears space in the landfill to sell to those needing to dispose of more debris. The shards of building material are used to bolster the leaky cap on a closed garbage landfill next to the construction and demolition landfill.

It's that use that the DEC sees as a reason to deny full reimbursement.

"Those costs aren't eligible [for reimbursement] because it's not considered recycling," DEC spokeswoman Megan Gollwitzer said. "Using the grinder to grind materials that will then be given to residents for use as mulch is considered recycling and is therefore an eligible cost reimbursement through the grant."

"It's beneficial reuse," Pope argued. "The whole point of this was to keep green waste from going into the landfill."

The refuse district has continued to smash up green wood downed in local communities. That material is converted into mulch and made available to homeowners.

The DEC allows 50 percent reimbursement for equipment bought to
improve local recycling infrastructure, reduce waste generation and collect household hazardous waste.

County legislators were told last year by County Manager Gregory D. Lewis that they needed to pass a solid-waste management plan and create a new $53,498-a-year full-time job, dubbed environmental science coordinator, in order to get the DEC to release the reimbursement on the grinder.

The county did so -- Dawn M. Walczak started work in April, and the county has created an unsalaried Solid Waste Management Council to promote recycling -- but the DEC still didn't pay as much as the county had expected.

"You try for the whole loaf and you get part," said Legislator John D. Ceretto, R-Lewiston, chairman of the refuse district board. "We totally believe in the Gruendler. . . . It is good equipment, and it is needed."

The county bought the machine in 2002 with revenue obtained when it sold bonds on Wall Street backed by the sale of its share of the national lawsuit settlement with the major tobacco companies.

e-mail: tprohaska@buffnews.com

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