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Huntley to get new plant, Schumer says But governor insists choice hasn't been made

Sen. Charles E. Schumer says New York's new billion-dollar power plant is going to the Huntley Station in the Town of Tonawanda.

State Sen. George D. Maziarz says Huntley's competitor in Niagara County may build its own plant.

And the man making the decision, Gov. George E. Pataki, insists the final choice has not been made.

That's how the competition for one of New York's biggest economic development deals -- a $1 billion clean-coal power plant expected to create 1,000 construction jobs and 140 permanent ones -- looked just days before Pataki makes his decision public.

Schumer, in a statement Friday, said NRG Energy's Huntley plant is the winning bidder in the hotly contested battle between Erie and Niagara counties and three other sites in the state.

"This project is a triple win for Western New York," the New York Democrat said of Huntley. "It creates jobs, reduces pollution and produces more efficient, cost-effective energy for area consumers and companies."

When told of Schumer's announcement, Maziarz, a strong supporter of Niagara County's offer, said he is confident Niagara will get its own project at AES Corp.'s Somerset plant in Barker.

"If NRG gets it, I'm happy it's coming to Western New York," he said. "But I'm not giving up. This decision is not being made until next week, and AES has the better plan."

Maziarz said he talked to AES officials Friday and they told him the company still would be interested in building a power plant even if Huntley wins the competition.

The winner gets a long-term contract to build a 680- to 700-megawatt coal-burning facility and sell its power to the New York Power Authority. The deal also includes more than $1 billion in incentives.

"If I have to do legislation to authorize a second one, it'll be the first bill I introduce in January," Maziarz said.

AES Somerset President Kevin R. Pierce said the company was working on long-range plans for a second coal-fired plant on its property on Lake Road in Somerset even before the state competition was announced. He said those plans have been accelerated by the contest and will continue.

However, Pierce said without a guaranteed contract to sell the resulting electricity to the Power Authority, the economics of the new plant will be more challenging.

"It makes it more difficult, that's for sure, and it's all on the financing," said Pierce, whose company received a controversial property tax break it said it needed to enhance its bid.

Schumer's announcement was quickly dismissed by the Pataki administration.

The Power Authority is not due to vote on the matter until Tuesday, Pataki spokesman David Catalfamo said. The state agency, which the governor controls, is overseeing the bidding process for the new facility.

"At that time, we will know who ultimately won," Catalfamo said of Tuesday's vote. "I'm sure Sen. Schumer doesn't want to unduly influence an ongoing competitive process."

Michael Salzman, a Power Authority spokesman, declined comment.

Eileen M. Natoli, director of the Governor's Office of Regulatory Reform, which kicked off the competition, took a verbal poke at Schumer.

"Not only is this premature, but this is a state award that Sen. Schumer has nothing to do with and until and unless the NYPA Board of Trustees makes a decision, there is absolutely nothing to announce," she said by e-mail.

But Schumer, who has been an active supporter of tax credits for the Tonawanda project even though he has no direct role in the decision, did not back off his contention that Huntley is being selected over Somerset and three other sites elsewhere in the state.

At least one Niagara County official concluded that Schumer must have been tipped off and his information is likely correct. "It's like the Grinch visited Niagara County," said Niagara County Legislature Vice Chairman Clyde L. Burmaster.

The confusion left observers wondering if Schumer had advance word of the decision and was jumping the gun now before Pataki, serving his final three weeks in office, travels here to announce the deal with fanfare.

A source familiar with Pataki's schedule said the governor is expected in Western New York next Wednesday to talk about his decision, an indication that Huntley or Somerset already has won the bid.

"This is the first I'm hearing of it," said State Sen. Mary Lou Rath, R-Williamsville, an NRG supporter. "I hope this doesn't get politicized."

Maziarz, a Newfane Republican, said he talked to officials in the governor's office and at the Power Authority after Schumer put out his statement.

"I think Schumer is premature," he said, adding that state officials insist no decision has been made.

If there has been a decision, the group pushing Huntley made no mention of it in a statement Friday.

The "Support Huntley Coalition," a group made up of business, labor, political and community leaders, announced that support for the Tonawanda plant is larger than ever now but said nothing about Huntley winning the competition.

"The support to build this new, clean-energy facility at the site of the Huntley generating station in Tonawanda has been great and is continuing to grow," said Kenmore Mayor John Beaumont, one of the coalition co-chairs.

For months, the two sides have touted their advantages, including the different emission-control technologies proposed by each operator.

The Huntley expansion would rely on Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle technology, a process that feeds coal into a gasification unit, where heat and pressure convert the coal into combustible gas.

The gas is then cleaned to remove sulfur and other contaminants and then burned in a turbine. NRG says the technology provides a low-cost method for using the plant's carbon dioxide emissions.

That's the question environmental activists are asking.

"Clean coal is a misleading concept," said Walter Simpson, a spokesman for the local chapter of the Sierra Club and the Western New York Climate Action Coalition. "Mining coal is very destructive of the land, destroying entire mountains in West Virginia and Kentucky. Burning it puts vast amounts of carbon dioxide into the air, making global warming and climate change worse."

AES is proposing to use a pulverized-coal generating system that operates at higher temperatures and allows the plant to reduce emissions while increasing its efficiency.

Company officials say scrubbers will be used to further reduce emissions.

Both companies claim their plants would be a new source of reliable electricity and rely on a fuel source that's affordable and readily available in the U.S.

News Staff Reporters Thomas J. Prohaska and John F. Bonfatti contributed to this report.

-mail: tprecious@buffnews.com and pfairbanks@buffnews.com

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