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3-month clock ticking on Huntley plant as Town of Tonawanda officials, residents discuss impact

Three months from Tuesday, the Huntley Station power plant in the Town of Tonawanda plans to turn off its lights forever.

The void that will be left by the loss of more than 70 jobs and $6 million in payments to municipal governments by the plant’s owner, NRG Energy, along with what will become of a vacant waterfront parcel contaminated by generations of fly-ash and other chemicals, were the chief topics addressed Monday night at a community discussion hosted by State Sen. Marc C. Panepinto, D-Buffalo, in the Sheridan Parkside Community Center.

Concerns were raised by several of the 50 or so who attended about how the dynamics of their community would change from the loss of NRG’s more than $3 million annual payment to the Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda School District and the $2 million paid to the town.

“This is going to obviously have a big financial impact to our community,” said Joseph H. Emminger, a Town Board member and supervisor-elect. “We can survive this.”

Surviving a post-Huntley world in Tonawanda starts with tapping into a $19 million pool of money allocated in the state budget to aid communities affected by retiring coal plants. Empire State Development Corp. is expected to be the conduit for that.

“The Town of Tonawanda is the only municipality presently that is eligible for those funds,” Panepinto said.

Rebecca R. Newberry, executive director of the Clean Air Coalition of Western New York, said, “We’re confident that the $19 million that was established in last year’s session will apply to Tonawanda and we’ll continue to work toward assuring that money is coming here.”

The Clean Air Coalition was the organization that helped spearhead the Just Transition campaign in the town, which brought together municipal, labor, school and other officials to help plan for a post-Huntley Tonawanda.

Emminger generated some buzz when he revealed that current Supervisor Anthony F. Caruana asked department heads to “think of ways” to maintain the same levels of services for less money.

Speculation has been circulating in recent months that the town is looking into privatizing garbage collection as a way to cut costs. Emminger, when asked about this, said that there have been no discussions about privatization at the Town Board level, but he also wouldn’t rule it out.

“That’s the reality of it, folks,” he said, noting that the town’s population is down to 73,000 residents from a high of 110,000. “Everything is on the table.”

Emminger also acknowledged that it could be a decade or two before the site is cleaned up and redeveloped but that it would be essential to the town’s future.

“It’s a prime site on our waterfront,” he said. “Nobody knows how environmentally impacted that site is. We’re going to have to find out and we’re going to have to make sure they clean up that site.”

email: tpignataro@buffnews.com and jpopiolkowski@buffnews.com