The closing of the Huntley Power Plant is threatening to put a plug on 19 million gallons of "raw" water that several local industries get every day.
For nearly a century, the coal-fueled Huntley Power Plant generated electrical power and provided the untreated water from the river to neighboring manufacturers like PeroxyChem, tire maker Sumitomo and 3M O-Cell-Sponge for free or a fraction of the cost of the treated water they could buy from the town. The untreated river water is used as coolants in manufacturing processes.
After it closed in 2016, Huntley continued providing cheap water to local manufacturers.
But the plant's owner, NRG Energy, has indicated it wants to get out of the water business, Town of Tonawanda Supervisor Joseph Emminger said. He said he and a dozen other officials met with NRG officials twice in the spring of 2016 and were again in discussions about the future of the plant this past June.
Without the long-term certainty of inexpensive water, industries that employ thousands of workers in Tonawanda could be jeopardized, Emminger said. So the town is investigating the possibility of building a $27.2 million water pumping station and related infrastructure so it can sell manufacturers untreated water.
NRG spokesman David Gaier disputed Emminger's contentions, indicating NRG has contracts to supply water to neighboring businesses and is involved in negotiations with its water customers. He said the Town of Tonawanda is not involved in these negotiations.
"Those contracts are still in effect and will be for some time if both sides agree, and they can be amended if both parties agree," Gaier wrote.
Gaier said NRG never charged the other businesses for river water it supplied to them until after the Huntley Power Plant closed two years ago.
Emminger said he was unable to identify who he met with from NRG, due to a nondisclosure agreement.
"What do I gain from lying?" he said. "We are out to protect the industry. We did a raw water study based on what they told us and the industry told us. We have to react."
PeroxyChem Plant Manager Karl P. Kriger said he couldn't talk specifically about his company's water contract with NRG, but noted that it does have a specific termination date. He declined to say when PeroxyChem's contract with NRG ends and how much PeroxyChem pays NRG for about 10 million gallons a day.
"We've been negotiating with them to extend the agreement, but so far we haven't gained an agreement with them for that extension," Kriger said. "The future may or may not be certain depending on how that goes."
Kriger said PeroxyChem, which employs 120 people at its Tonawanda plant, has been working with the town to find an alternative water supplier.
"We need to secure access to river water to support the business and we are looking at a number of options," said Kriger. "We've been getting water from NRG and its predecessors for more than 75 years and we are required to have an economical supply of water ... which is used as a non-contact coolant water."
Kriger said PeroxyChem officials are considering building their own pumping station to obtain river water, but added, "We would be happy to work with the town and have them provide it for us, which does eliminate the need for personnel to attend to that process."
Both Emminger and Kriger said the certainty of access to water was a big issue for manufacturers, especially since NRG has closed the Huntley Power Plant.
Two other Tonawanda businesses, DuPont and Indeck Yerkes, which runs a steam-generating facility, do not rely on NRG water. They jointly operate a water pumping station but it is in need of updating, and Dupont and Indeck Yerkes have asked to instead to be included as potential customers of a new town raw water pumping station, said Michael Kessler, water department director for the town.
Kessler said the town is not considering taking over the Huntley pumping station.
"First of all, it is too old. If we do this we would put new lines in," said Kessler.
Kessler said the town is instead considering building a pumping station to provide up to 27 million gallons of water a day to five businesses: PeroxyChem, Sumitomo, 3M O-Cell-Sponge, Dupont and Indeck Yerkes.
Emminger said the town could begin selling untreated water to those five companies, but it would first need to build intakes for raw water and a new pumping station and related infrastructure. The town will seek state and federal grants for the $27.2 million project, he said. It would take about three years to build the facilities.
"Water and sewer infrastructure is economic development," Emminger said. "These jobs at these plants are family-sustaining jobs – good-paying jobs. We are talking over 3,000 jobs. Hopefully we can keep them here and bring more."
The town already provides residential and commercial customers with treated water from the Niagara River. But the treated water costs $3.60 to $3.90 per 1,000 gallons.
That price is "astronomical" compared to the .22 to .25 cents per 1,000 gallons that untreated water costs, said Kessler.
Kessler said the five industries, which would benefit the most from the new pumping station, have agreed to help pay for costs the town would incur. But those companies have balked at the $27 million price tag.
Emminger said town officials have met with state and federal leaders, as well as Empire State Development and New York Power Authority to seek funding over the past three weeks.
State Sen. Chris Jacobs, R-Buffalo, said he will push for state funding to help Tonawanda provide untreated water to the industries, but said funding decisions will be up to Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Empire State Development.
"We have to make sure there is dependable raw water to those manufacturers," said Jacobs. "It's a two-pronged challenge for Tonawanda. They've already taken a hit because Huntley was its largest taxpayer. They cannot afford to lose anyone else."
Assemblyman Robin Schimminger, D-Kenmore, said finding state funding would be difficult to secure this budget year, with the state facing a $4.4 billion deficit. But state and federal aid may be available, he said.
"The pending unavailability of raw water coming from the Huntley intake is one of the ancillary consequences of the closing of Huntley," said Schimminger, who noted that this is something Cuomo and Empire State Development should address.
Emminger, in a recent opinion column in The Buffalo News, asked why the state is stepping in to help Niagara Falls, providing $20 million to address sanitary sewer overflows, "but forgot about the rest of us."
"The industries, not the town, would pay for this project and they have no problem paying .22 to .25 cents per gallon for the water, the problem is the upfront costs to build it. We've got to get the costs down," Emminger said.
Town officials believe the town could raise $600,000 to $800,000 a year selling water to the manufacturers, Emminger said. That would help offset the $2 million a year the town is no longer receiving from Huntley as a payment in lieu of taxes.
Kessler said the town has spent $125,000 in state grant money to study the raw water issue because officials knew the industries would need a long-term, sustainable solution.
"There's an urgency to get some other source of water," Kessler said.