U.S. Sen. Charles E. Schumer had a simple message Tuesday for NRG Energy:
"Keep the water flowing."
Schumer, the Senate minority leader, was in the Town of Tonawanda to call for an extension of the agreement between NRG and several industries to pump millions of gallons of Niagara River water daily from intakes at the Huntley Generating Station. The agreement involves industries such as PeroxyChem, tire maker Sumitomo and 3M O-Cell-Sponge, which employ about 4,000 people and depend on the untreated water for their manufacturing processes.
"I am here to demand of NRG, a major national company, that they keep the water flowing, keep the jobs here in Tonawanda," Schumer said at a morning news conference at PeroxyChem near the former coal-fired Huntley plant, which NRG shuttered in 2016.
Backed by town officials, steelworkers and others, Schumer criticized the New Jersey-based NRG for receiving a "massive corporate tax cut" and issuing a $1 billion stock buyback plan before agreeing to extend the water purchase agreements beyond their expiration in 2019.
"You know what a stock buyback does?" Schumer said. "It doesn't benefit these people or average working New Yorkers. It benefits the CEO who owns a lot of stock and all the rich shareholders."
Schumer said NRG has not responded to inquiries about their plans and Town of Tonawanda Supervisor Joe Emminger said NRG has been "very quiet" on the matter.
But in a statement Tuesday, NRG spokesman David Gaier said the current contracts for water intake services are still in effect and may be extended by mutual agreement.
"NRG is aware of the importance of the industrial plants’ access to water and we continue to work with them, and with the Town of Tonawanda, while balancing the needs and future opportunities for the site which is a key priority for the community and NRG as well," he said.
Emminger said the town is investigating the possibility of building a $27.2 million water pumping station and related infrastructure so it can sell manufacturers up to 30 million gallons of untreated water daily.
But until funding is secured and the station is built over three years, those companies will continue to depend on water from the Huntley intakes, which were installed in the 1920s. Without a guarantee, the companies may not invest in jobs and technology upgrades, Emminger warned.
"The worst thing businesses can encounter is uncertainty and this is what they're encountering right now," he said.
Gaier clarified that NRG does not provide water to the industrial customers. Rather, the companies operate their own pumping equipment on the site to take water from the Niagara River.
"We have confidential commercial contracts in place to permit their ongoing use," Gaier said. "It’s important to note that Huntley station has been retired for two years, and we’ve worked in good faith with those industrial companies for almost three years – since before the station closed – to accommodate their needs and allow time to plan for the future."
Phil Wilcox of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 97, which represents the few remaining workers at the Huntley site, suggested that sale conditions could require a new developer to assume the water supply agreement.
"In short – a win-win for all concerned," he said.
Schumer said NRG could jeopardize an initiative called Tonawanda Tomorrow underway to redevelop the town's western waterfront industrial sector and make better use of vacant sites like Huntley.
"This would pull the rug out from under us," Schumer said. "Any gap in water service will do serious and irreversible damage to our regional economy."
And he invoked his clout as Washington's most powerful Democrat, hinting that a failure to extend the agreements could hinder NRG when it seeks regulatory approvals in Washington.
"NRG comes before Congress with a whole lot of stuff, and if they can be as heartless and cruel and selfish to do this I can't look favorably on a company like that," Schumer said. "I just want them to know that loud and clear."