Town of Ulster Supervisor James Quigley III said this week he will recommend a “positive declaration of environmental significance” on Niagara Bottling’s proposal to build a water bottling facility at a vacant parcel near the old IBM campus. If the board agrees at its meeting set for Thursday, Nov. 20, it means the controversial plan will face lengthy review and multiple rounds of public comment.
The proposal calls for the development of a $54 million facility at the site adjacent to TechCity. When fully operational, the plant would use up to 1.75 million gallons of water each day purchased from Kingston’s municipal system. The plant would also process spring water trucked into the facility from other locations and produce plastic bottles. Niagara officials say the plant would bring about 120 new jobs to the area, while payments for Kingston water would help offset the cost of replacing aging infrastructure. Opponents of the plan, who have turned out in force at public meetings on the issue, worry that the deal will leave the city short of water and/or damage the ecosystem around Kingston’s watershed at Cooper Lake in Woodstock.
Quigley has expressed support for the plan and says he’s concerned that it could be derailed by organized opposition. But, he said, given the size of the project, and the emergence of vocal opposition, a “Type 1” State Environmental Quality Review action, which allows the public to scrutinize and comment on studies carried out by the applicant on everything from traffic patterns to visual impacts, was appropriate. Quigley added that a “negative declaration” asserting the project would have no deleterious effect on the environment — which would effectively circumvent public review — would almost certainly lead to a lawsuit by opponents of the plan. Legal action, he said, would take at least as long as a Type 1 review and have a less predictable outcome.
“Let them read the reports, let them comment on the reports,” said Quigley of the opposition. “Rather than just turn around and say that the reports are bogus, which is what they’re doing now.”
How the process will play out
The SEQR review process will begin with a scoping document produced by the company and subject to approval by the town board, which is acting as lead agency and heading up the review, and other “involved agencies.” The document lays out issues to be studied and reviewed for inclusion with a draft environmental impact statement (DEIS). Once the DEIS is accepted as complete, the public has a chance to review the document and weigh in. The town board may require the applicant to respond to specific questions or criticisms compiled during the public comment period. The lead agency can also mandate formal hearings on issues raised during the public comment period. Once the lead agency accepts the environmental impact statement as complete, each involved agency will have an opportunity to lay out findings, including recommended changes to the project, before the review is complete.
Quigley said opponents of the plan, and anybody else who cares to, will have ample opportunity to comment on aspects of the project. But, he added, the review would not be slowed down by demands to study and re-study minor points of objection.
“I do not anticipate studying frogs on the moon and their potential impact on the Cooper Lake watershed,” said Quigley.
Quigley said Niagara had already committed to producing studies on some major expected impacts. They include a traffic study for the plant where, Niagara predicts, some 260 trucks would unload and offload each day in a 24-hours-a-day/364-days-a-year production cycle. The company must also produce a report detailing the exact composition of effluent to be discharged into the Esopus Creek. The review will also include an updated report on the capacity of the Cooper Lake watershed and the ability of the Kingston Water Department to service the bottling facility without negatively impacting current customers.
Lead agency status
The Ulster Town Board is also expected to declare itself “lead agency” in the review at the November 20 meeting. The move means the board will guide the SEQR process and make the final call on whether to accept draft and final versions of the environmental impact statements as complete. Activists opposed to the plan, as well as Kingston Mayor Shayne Gallo and the Kingston Common Council had, called upon the state Department of Environmental Conservation to take on lead agency status and do the review itself. But the DEC and a number of other “involved agencies” which will have to grant permits or make other decisions involving the construction and operation of the bottling facility have already signaled that they have no problem with the Ulster Town Board taking the lead.
“If DEC felt that the Town of Ulster did not have the capacity to serve as lead agency,” said Quigley, “they would have exercised that right when we notified them of our intent.”
Quigley also said that he would not recommend inviting the City of Kingston on board as an “involved party” in the SEQRA review. Involved parties can submit findings and make recommendations during the process. But under Kingston’s City Charter, the water department holds the exclusive right to make decisions regarding the sale of “surplus water.” The department is administered by a board of commissioners appointed by the mayor, who also serves as a voting member. The arrangement dates to the water department’s formation in 1895 and was intended to keep administration of a vital public resource free of political interference.
Members of the Common Council say it’s unfair for elected representatives to be left out of a process that could have a major impact on constituents and have been pushing to become an “involved agency.” But Quigley said he based his determination to exclude the Common Council on a legal opinion drafted by Kingston’s own corporation counsel, Andrew Zweben. Zweben’s opinion cited the City Charter and SEQR law in arguing that the city doesn’t merit “involved agency” status.
“Every agency that has a discretionary decision to make on this project has been notified and consented [to the Ulster Town Board serving as lead agency],” said Quigley. “The City of Kingston does not meet that definition.”