Tonawanda Seneca Nation responds to Fish & Wildlife Service terminating drilling permit for STAMP pipeline

Posted 29 April 2024 at 2:48 pm

Press Release, Tonawanda Seneca Nation

TOWN OF ALABAMA – The U.S. Fish and WIldlife Service has announced its decision to pull a permit that would have allowed construction of an industrial wastewater and sewage pipeline through the Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge. The Tonawanda Seneca Nation, which opposes the pipeline, commended USFWS on its decision.

“This industrial wastewater pipeline through our ancestral lands threatened harm to the Refuge, our people, and our way of life,” said Chief Roger Hill of the Nation. “We asked the Fish and Wildlife Service to terminate this permit nearly two years ago, and only went to court when our repeated requests were denied. The Service made the right decision to pull this permit and protect the land and waters.”

The Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1958 to support migratory waterfowl, maintain the health of Oak Orchard Creek and its floodplain and wetlands, preserve habitat, and enhance outdoor opportunities for local communities.

The Tonawanda Seneca Nation first called on USFWS to pull the permit in September 2022, citing fatal flaws in its issuance that included failure to consult with the Nation. USFWS refused the Nation’s request and allowed pipeline construction to begin in July 2023. Construction was halted in September 2023 following multiple spills of hundreds of gallons of drilling fluids onto federally protected land and wetlands, and the Nation filed suit against USFWS in federal court in November 2023.

Cleanup of the spills has taken more than seven months and included removal of more than 73 tons of contaminated drilling mud from wetlands in the Refuge, with engineers and state regulators acknowledging that some drilling mud cannot be removed and will likely remain in the environment permanently. The Nation’s lawsuit argues that the pipeline permit approval and subsequent drilling violated the National Wildlife Refuge Improvement Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, and the National Historic Preservation Act.

In its decision, USFWS found that “construction of [the pipeline] cannot be completed as originally permitted and… the environmental impacts extend beyond the permitted Right-Of-Way (ROW).” USFWS noted that termination of the permit would be effective as of June 24, 2024, and clarified that any further proposed pipeline construction would require the developer to file a new permit application.

The decision represents a stinging blow to developer Genesee County Economic Development Center (GCEDC), which intended construction of the pipeline to draw industrial tenants to the proposed Western New York Science, Technology and Advanced Manufacturing Park (WNY STAMP).

While the agency has receivedc$100 million in state funding for WNY STAMP since 2005, including $56 million recently awarded by Governor Hochul, WNY STAMP remains unoccupied. Its sole tenant, Plug Power, has suspended construction of a facility there due to cash shortages and market conditions.

The Plug Power project has received state subsidies totalling $270 million, or $4 million per promised job. The project fails to meet baselines required by New York’s “Smart Growth” law, and both Plug Power and WNY STAMP were included in Western New York’s list of “Biggest Business Losers” by the Buffalo News in 2023.

According to a 2017 New York State Department of Environmental Conservation study, visitors coming to fish Oak Orchard Creek, Lake Ontario, and its tributaries in Orleans County bring $27 million to the region every year. Contamination caused by WNY STAMP would jeopardize these economic benefits.

The Tonawanda Seneca Nation, a federally recognized Indian Nation, has raised concerns about the WNY STAMP industrial mega site since its inception. The project poses an existential threat to the people and culture of the Nation, as well as threats to birds, fish, deer, water, and medicinal plants in the Big Woods that border WNY STAMP. Federal law requires robust consultation with the Nation on projects that affect it, and federal guidance directs agencies to aim for consensus with Indian Nations.

According to Chief Hill, “Protecting the land and water for future generations is one of our greatest responsibilities, and preventing this pipeline through the Refuge is an important step. But our Nation still faces a looming threat from the proposed STAMP industrial site and we hope to move forward collaboratively with the Fish and Wildlife Service and New York State to ensure potential impacts from heavy industry are fully analyzed and avoided before permits are issued. It shouldn’t take an environmental disaster for agencies to follow the law.”

Editor’s Note: The Genesee County Economic Development Center on April 25 announced it is working closely with the towns of Oakfield and Alabama, along with the village of Oakfield and regulatory agencies to construct a force main to accommodate the current projects at STAMP and a potential future project.

“As the Oakfield line cannot fully replace Orleans County line we will continue to pursue the force main to Oak Orchard Creek in the town of Shelby through a different construction method and we look forward to working with United States Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Tonawanda Seneca Nation as this process moves forward. The Oakfield plan alleviates the timing pressures for the build-out of the force main to Oak Orchard Creek.”

The GCEDC said it is in the process of submitting a new permit application to propose an open cut construction method which will avoid the types of incidents that resulted from the horizontal directional drilling.

Gov. Kathy Hochul on April 26 announced construction started for the Edwards Vacuum factory at STAMP. That $319 million facility will make technology that is a vital component to controlling the highly sensitive environment of semiconductor manufacturing processes, Hochul said.