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Tonawanda’s leaders should start planning now for a day without Huntley

The Huntley Station power plant in the Town of Tonawanda keeps getting reports that should give the town, school district and county reason to look in other directions for tax revenue.

Earlier this year, a report, commissioned by the Clean Air Coalition of Western New York and prepared by an Ohio energy consulting firm determined to reduce the nation’s dependence on coal-generated electricity, painted a dim future for the power plant, which is owned by New Jersey-based NRG Energy.

More recently, the plant was awarded the dubious distinction of being placed atop the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s annual list as Erie County’s biggest polluter. Again.

The coal-fired plant has held onto the top spot as Erie County’s biggest polluter every year between 2002 and 2011 and once again in 2013. It was temporarily displaced by 3M Company’s sponge manufacturing plant on Sawyer Avenue in the Town of Tonawanda in 2012.

The EPA’s newly published Toxics Release Inventory does not show the Huntley plant in the best light. It does account for the fact that most of the contaminants from the plant were collected and transferred off site, but about 56,000 pounds were released into the air, water or land. It doesn’t take a scientist to know that the several thousands of pounds of hydrogen fluoride, hydrochloric acid, barium compounds and lead and mercury compounds released into the environment is probably not good.

Brian P. Smith, associate executive director for the Citizens Campaign for the Environment, called it “unacceptable.” Agreed.

The plant’s position as top polluter must give officials pause. If not for environmental and health concerns then for the possibility that the green product – those several millions of dollars in tax revenue each year – may cease to make it into the school, town and county coffers.

Consider the Somerset coal-fired plant in Barker, which fell into bankruptcy in late 2011 and was taken over by its bondholders.

The Ohio consultants insisted the Huntley plant is losing money and at risk of being shut down.

Plant operators might disagree, but between the million-dollar losses the Ohio consultants claim at the Huntley plant in both 2011 and 2012 – without including such costs as property tax payment and interest expenses – and this renewed dubious distinction as top polluter, the plant has seen better times during its 98-year history.

NRG has spent $150 million to reduce emissions from the plant, which company officials credit in improvements. But that hardly moves the dial on what is, after all, a coal-fired plant.

The plant’s days appear to be numbered, at least as it exists today. The pollution is disturbing and coal is on its way out. Because of that, local entities that have become dependent upon the plant might want to start planning ahead.