When the nearly century-old Huntley Station power plant closed in 2016, nearby industries along the River Road corridor in the Town of Tonawanda were left scrambling to find other sources for the nearly 19 million gallons in untreated water they received from the plant every day to use as coolants in their manufacturing processes.
The plant's closure also blew a hole in the town's budget.
A new pumping station – which would draw water from the Niagara River and disperse it as untreated "raw water" to industries – could potentially solve both problems. But the hefty price tag of over $27 million has meant the Town of Tonawanda would need help to get a new plant built.
State Sen. Chris Jacobs, R-Buffalo, on Wednesday announced that he had secured a $5.5 million in state Senate infrastructure funds for a new pumping station – about a third of the public money needed to move forward.
Jacobs said he likes that industries will also step up.
At least five companies along the River Road corridor still get water services from NRG Huntley – PeroxyChem, Sumitomo (formerly Dunlop,) DuPont and InDeck (which uses steam from DuPont) and 3M/O-Cell-O Sponge. But each faces uncertainty in their arrangements while NRG works to sell the Huntley property. Rather than potentially being forced to buy treated water at a much higher cost from the Town of Tonawanda or upgrade or build their own pumping stations, the companies have discussed becoming partners with the town.
The current contracts for water services are still in effect and could be amended or extended by mutual agreement, said NRG spokesman David Gaier in a written statement. He noted previously that for decades none of these customers was charged by NRG. The charges began only when the plant closed and NRG no longer needed cooling water. At this point, NRG is not charging for water, but the infrastructure required to provide it.
"NRG is aware of the importance of water to these industrial plants," according to his statement. "We continue to work with them and the Town of Tonawanda in good faith, as we did even well before the plant closed, to find a solution concerning future, long-term operations of the water intake infrastructure and explore alternative options."
The Town of Tonawanda is "really in a big push for funding," said Michael Kessler, the town's director of water resources.
Companies have agreed to "join them in the project" and pay $10 million toward a new pumping station if the town can find another $16 million, Kessler said.
"We are trying to give (participating industries) a really comfortable number," Kessler said.
Tonawanda Supervisor Joseph H. Emminger said companies want a firm commitment for funding from state and federal agencies, while state and federal leaders want a firm commitment from the industries.
"If we only get the state Senate money, that's not going to do us any good," Emminger said. "This is about job retention, job creation and revenue – for the town to replace the lost revenue from the Huntley closing."
Jacobs agreed. The state Senate money will retain jobs and encourage expansion and also could lead to investment by other companies.
"The availability of water is something they need to be assured of," Jacobs said. "If something were to happen right now and the access that they have at Huntley right now were to stop, (these industries) would have to pay for drinking water from Tonawanda."
Kessler said the cost for treated water can be up to $3.90 per gallon, while untreated water costs about 22 to 25 cents per gallon.
Jacobs said higher costs for water could force companies to expand their plants elsewhere.
"This is critical for keeping the tax base in Tonawanda," Jacobs said of a raw water pumping station. "We need to do more to make up for the major loss in the tax base due to the Huntley closing."
Jacobs said he hopes that the commitment from the state Senate will also encourage the Assembly and the executive branch to also invest in the town infrastructure as well.
"Industry is committed to the area and wants to stay," Jacobs said. "These are jobs that are real – not the hope and desire for jobs. Even if they don't hire another person, due to the aging workforce, there are hundreds of jobs that will open every year."
Assemblyman Robin Schimminger, D-Kenmore, whose office paid for feasibility studies to examine the costs for a pumping station, said he's "fully committed" and had encouraged the governor's office to fund the entire project in the state budget, but has thus far heard nothing. He said he is also working on federal funding.
Emminger said his office has been lobbying at the federal and state level for the past five months and has tried to get assurances for funding from the governor's office and at the federal level from Sen. Charles Schumer.
Despite the lack of an official commitment, Emminger said they were optimistic they will have another $5.5 million grant from the Assembly.
"That's $11 million and we are optimistic we are going to get more, but we also know the clock is ticking," Emminger said.