NISKAYUNA -- Upgrades to the town's wastewater treatment plant could let the town treat waste from other companies -- and profit from the extra business. But neighbors aren't on board.
A dozen or so residents of Whitmyer Drive -- the dead end street on which the plant is located -- and nearby River Road are speaking out against plans to process wastewater from outside customers. They met with town officials Monday night and voiced concerns about increased traffic they believe will come with increased business.
They are also concerned about safety, as delivery trucks would need to negotiate a sharp turn on Whitmyer road.
Whitmyer resident Amy Howansky, who has rallied her neighbors against the plan to accept wastewater from businesses outside the town, said many neighbors with whom she spoke said they were never notified about the latest "phase" of the project. Other people said the same thing.
"We bought the house because it was very peaceful and quiet, zoned rural-residential," Howansky said of her purchase eight years ago. "It was a dead end, and we knew there would be limited traffic ... now everything about that has changed."
Residents had no major complaints about the facility's upgrades, which will reduce occasional sewer odors. But they were concerned with plans to treat the facility as a business.
"Do we need more money that bad, to have all this other waste come in?" asked Gilbert Kallenberger of River Road.
Kathy Longe, who has lived on Whitmyer for the past 30 years, believes quality of life will change for people on her street with extra traffic -- traffic she believes will be dangerous.
"You don't care about quality of life, environment," she said. "It's all about money, money, money."
Kevin Walsh, chairman of the town Planning Board and a Whitmyer resident, believes the project should have come before the board. He believes the Planning Board could still help -- he would recuse himself if the board became involved.
"I think the Town Board has the opportunity to utilize any board they would like as a resource, to see if they can help the Town Board and help the staff on these concerns," he said.
Walsh believes meetings about the plan to take in outside waste -- residents also complained during the Town Board's June 26 meeting -- are sessions that should have taken place two years ago. Like others, he said he was never notified about the revenue-producing project phase.
"We didn't know about that," he said. "People say, 'How did we not know?' But I'm here all the time, and I didn't know. It's a fact. We didn't know."
In March, the Town Board borrowed $17.5 million to pay for the plant's upgrades -- the largest borrowing package in the town's history.
The measure was approved by all four Democratic board members. Town Supervisor Yasmine Syed -- the sole Republican on the board -- abstained from a series of votes on the package.
Syed later said she abstained because the planning process on the project began before she took office in January. At the time, she said she was concerned with a waste-to-energy contract that would result in the plant operating like a business.
On Tuesday, Syed said she was unable to attend Monday's meeting, though she knows about the controversy.
"I really can't speak to that because I don't know what the prior administration did as far as notifying everyone (about the plan to take in outside waste)," she said. "I just don't know what steps were taken on that. I do understand their concern; that's one of the reasons I abstained from voting when I did.
"I didn't know at the time -- you never know -- what are the implications going to be of making this into basically a business when you're trucking in waste and processing it, hopefully to offset some costs."
Whitmyer resident Leonard Goldstock has been concerned about recent strong odors from the plant -- odors officials said will vanish once renovations are complete.
Traffic remains another one of his concerns.
"I think the town owes this community an opportunity to discuss the impact of the trucks," he said. "Yes, we needed to upgrade the sewer treatment center because we all need to take care of the waste. But for goodness sake, control the trucks. Someone's going to get killed on that road.
Richard Pollock, the town's superintendent of water, sewer and engineering, said outside wastewater business at the plant could bring the town up to $650,000 annually. Energy recovered from the treatment process could generate power to run the plant.
He also said one concern has been addressed: A large portion of brush at the sharp turn on Whitmyer has been removed, so drivers coming from opposite directions should be better able to see each other.
Pollock also addressed residents' concerns in a conversation after the meeting.
"Could communications have been better two years ago?" he asked. "Probably. But did the town intentionally go out and try to keep it undercover and hush-hush and don't tell anybody? No."
Aidan Murphy, of Maryland-based Energy Systems Group, which has nearly completed renovations at the plant, believes the town has been transparent throughout the project.
"I think they have posted everything as they've gone through the process," he said. "The town approves what happens and doesn't happen. We don't have a stake in the game other than completing the project."
One potential customer has already shown interest: a soda manufacturing plant in Latham. Officials said any manufacturer that wants to transport waste to Niskayuna for treatment must sign a contract for the work. Each contract must be passed by the Town Board.
Board member Denise Murphy McGraw, in an email, said the project has gotten Niskayuna out from under a state Department of Environmental Conservation moratorium and will give the town one of the few "net-zero-energy" facilities in the country.
"The goal is to produce about as much energy as it uses -- a real coup for our town," she said.
McGraw also said there has been plenty of talk about the entire project.
"This project has been discussed very publicly for three years, and it has always been discussed as 'soda waste,' not industrial waste or waste from other communities," she said. "We’ve had a presentation at Town Board and regular updates and discussion at the Public Works Committee."
Reach Daily Gazette reporter Jeff Wilkin at 518-395-3124 or at [email protected]