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Editorial: Public vigilance in Huntley project is good for community

There is, at this point, no reason to believe that the decommissioning, closure and potential sale of the former Huntley Generating Station won’t be handled appropriately and professionally. Nevertheless, it is all to the good that community watchdogs are on guard, insisting on thorough and appropriate standards for the transition. Their involvement will bolster public confidence in what needs to be an honest and open process.

The Huntley Plant was closed two years ago and leaves behind a toxic residue from a century of coal-fired power generation. Environmental advocates say that likely includes arsenic, cadmium, chromium, mercury and other toxins contained in the coal piles, ash ponds and fly ash landfill that remain on the site. Those poisons could leach into the soil, the ground water and the Niagara River, they say, if the site isn’t properly remediated.

Maybe in some parts of the country, no one would have to worry that corners would be cut in a bid to save time and money. But the people of Western New York have learned that the price of inattentiveness can be high: Think Love Canal, Tonawanda Coke, the Buffalo River, West Valley and, as the advocates who demonstrated on Monday noted, the old Bethlehem Steel site in Lackawanna which, like the Huntley plant, is hard on the waterfront.

It’s important for everyone concerned to undertake the Huntley project in a way that both protects and includes the public whose members will have little choice but to live with the results.

Thus far, the project seems to be unfolding appropriately. Officials of NRG Energy, which owns the plant, say they are developing a plan in conjunction with the state Department of Environmental Conservation. They pledged that the decommissioning will comply with federal and state laws and regulations. “We will also continue to keep community leaders informed as we make progress on both fronts,” company spokesman David Gaier said in a statement.

That’s encouraging, but it is also important for advocates to be vocal and specific about their concerns. For example, the executive director of the Clean Air Coalition of Western New York wants a detailed list of the toxic chemical that remain on the site because, she said, “without it, we can’t even determine the next course of action.” That, surely, is a reasonable request springing from a legitimate concern.

Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper, meanwhile, favors remediation and reuse of the site, but says planning must focus on protecting the environment, public access and water quality. “Restoration and reuse of this site must take into consideration the Niagara River’s critical role in providing drinking water to communities in Western New York,” the Waterkeeper’s executive director, Jill Jedlicka, said in a statement.

Others expressed their own concerns. Cheryl Hughes, a Ken-Ton science teacher, simply wants to know the plan. A student, Evan Haeick, said the students at Kenmore East High School “won’t rest until a solution that is economically and environmentally friendly is found.”

Maybe this vigilance will turn out to have been unnecessary. Maybe because of it, the process will turn out better than it would have otherwise. Either way, their influence is welcome.

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