Artvoice: Buffalo's #1 Newsweekly
Home Blogs Web Features Calendar Listings Artvoice TV Classifieds Contact
Previous story: Deliver Us From Decay
Next story: Scorecard: The Week's Winners and Losers

Seven Days: The Straight Dope From the Week That Was

Dr. Helen Caldicott told Port Hope, Ontario residents that they should move to escape radiological contamination.

Shades of Love Canal

World-renowned anti-nuclear activist Dr. Helen Caldicott had intended to give a talk on Tuesday night to residents of the Ontario town of Port Hope, which lies directly north of Youngstown across Lake Ontario. Port Hope has long hosted uranium refinement facilities, which have left a legacy of radioactive waste—at least 2.1 million tons of contaminated soil on 4,500 properties—and the attendant human health problems.

Last week, Caldicott called Port Hope a “toxic time bomb,” and said that the only safe solution was to relocate all 16,000 of its residents. In response to her comments, the church that was to host Caldicott’s talk canceled her appearance, and government officials at all levels, from the town’s mayor to representatives of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, dismissed Caldicott’s ideas as inflammatory.

Caldicott’s talk—sponsored by Families Against Radiation Exposure, Friends of the Port Hope Clean-up, and Lake Ontario Waterkeeper—was moved to Oshawa, 30 miles away. Port Hope, she said that evening, “symbolizes the whole wickedness” of the nuclear industry. “This radioactive waste will leak into food supplies, water and air for the rest of time.”

Caldicott is not the first to say such things. Environmental activist Robert Kennedy, Jr., a founding member of the Riverkeeper movement, a few years ago called Port Hope “Canada’s nuclear sacrifice zone.”

For Western New Yorkers, calls for the evacuation of contaminated land evoke Love Canal, the Niagara Falls neighborhood whose residents were moved out of their houses when an angry population educated themselves to their neighborhood dangers and organized. And in many regards, the town of Port Hope is a sister to the city of Niagara Falls: Their nuclear industries share historical ties and left legacies that include widespread radiological waste—some of it contained in imperfect landfills, some of it under roadbeds, some of it fallout from the local smokestack releases, much of it unacknowledged and unaccounted for. In Niagara Falls and surrounding municipalities, a wider spectrum of activities produced a wider array of wastes, and in greater quantities, but the issues are essentially the same: How do you clean up a region that for decades has been contaminated with material that last millennia? How do you redress the compounding costs to human health and the local economy? Is it possible to do so?

After years of their concerns being dismissed, Port Hope’s residents grew fed up with being told that the community’s health issues had nothing to do with uranium contamination. So a couple years ago they raised some money and they paid for tests, conducted by the Uranium Medical Research Centre based in Toronto, which proved their exposure was real and dangerous. And they used the results to shame the Canadian government into undertaking an expensive but limited and experimental cleanup.

That cleanup comes late and may prove inadequate, but it may be a step in the right direction. Unless, of course, Caldicott is correct, and the only safe outcome is that no one live in Port Hope ever again. If she’s correct, what does that mean for Niagara Falls?

About 30 demonstrators organized by PUSH Buffalo assembled outside the Ellicott Square building on Tuesday afternoon to protest the structure of National Fuel's Conservation Incentive Program.

Gaslight

The weather was appropriately frightful on Tuesday afternoon, when about 30 demonstrators gathered in front of the Main Street entrance to the Ellicott Square Building. The intended audience: the New York State Public Service Commission, whose local offices are on the fourth floor. (On the Washington Street side of the building, but who’s counting.) The theme: “Which Side Are You On?” The subject: National Fuel’s Conservation Incentive Program, or CIP, through which the company offers rebates to customers who buy energy-efficient furnaces and appliances and, to a lesser extent, helps low-income property owners to weatherproof their homes.

PUSH Buffalo, which organized the protest, has waged a yearlong campaign asking National Fuel to retool the CIP to focus more on weatherproofing. Activists argue that new windows and insulation are more efficient than appliance rebates in reducing energy use and helps those for whom high heating bills are most onerous. Currently, the CIP allots $5.4 million annually for appliance rebates, $2.7 million for weatherproofing, and $2.7 million for public relations. (You may have noticed the ad campaign.) All of this, if you pay for heat, is underwritten by your money: The program is funded through a surcharge on your heating bill. The activists also have suggested that National Fuel ought to kick in some of its own money in exchange for its state-granted monopoly.

The Public Service Commission is scheduled to meet today (November 18) to decide whether to extend the CIP for a fourth year. PUSH Buffalo is asking the Public Service Commission not to renew the program until National Fuel executives agree to meet with community groups and negotiate changes to the program, something National Fuel CEO David Smith steadfastly refuses to do.

The CIP was created in 2007, as a tradeoff for a rate hike: Let us raise rates, National Fuel told state legislators, and we’ll invest in energy efficiency to help customers reduce usage. Of course, the CIP is entirely funded by customers, so National Fuel’s profits are unaffected by that investment. In fact, a PowerPoint delivered by Julie Coppola Cox, a regional communications manager for National Fuel, seems to describe the CIP as a sort of Trojan horse developed by National Fuel to abet its efforts to win the rate hike and other concessions. According to Cox’s presentation, the strategy was informed by its failure to win a similar rate hike a year earlier in Pennsylvania.

The PowerPoint is titled “Fuel for Thought: National Fuel Gas Distribution Corporation’s Revenue Decoupling Proposals.” Rate decoupling mechanisms seek to immunize utility companies from fluctuations in sales—caused, for example, by decreases in usage achieved through energy efficiency measures—by allowing utilities to adjust rates to ensure that their revenues remain steady. To a large degree, revenue decoupling makes the business risk-free. In Pennsylvania, National Fuel sought a base rate increase of $25.9 million per year, as well as a provision for revenue decoupling, attached to what the presentation calls “enhanced conservation services/benefits.”

The results of National Fuel’s efforts to win a rate increase and revenue decoupling were newspaper headlines like “Less gas, pay more” and “NFG fee enrages region.” According to the PowerPoint, consumer advocates and public officials joined together and called the proposal “unethical” and “immoral.” In the end, National Fuel was granted a rate increase of $14.3 million with no revenue decoupling measure.

Which brings us to slide #7 in the presentation: “Lessons Learned,” which begins with “Should have featured conservation benefits prominently.” That’s what National Fuel did in New York State the following year. Mindful of the failure in Pennsylvania, the company focused on “Extensive, up-front planning”; “Coordination of efforts between Rates and Communications Departments”; “Branding of conservation features: Conservation Incentive Program”; and asserting “that proposal will provide tangible benefits for customers.”

The public relations strategy was matched with a lobbying strategy, according to the presentation, and the results was “a favorable editorial published in The Buffalo News,” “few negative letters to the editor,” “legislative support,” “generally positive media coverage,” and the kicker: “[revenue decoupling mechanism] went relatively unnoticed.” National Fuel won its rate increase and revenue decoupling, balanced by the $10.8 million annual Conservation Incentive Program paid for by a customer surcharge. Where Pennsylvania rebelled, New York caved.

PUSH argues that low-income gas customers living in houses that leak heat prodigiously offer far greater opportunities to reduce energy usage than do the more affluent customers who tend to use the rebate program. Making low-income housing more energy efficient could reduce the cost of the federally funded Home Energy Assistance Program. And, perhaps most promisingly, it creates a need to train and hire workers to weatherproof houses in their own communities. The work they do can also leverage federal weatherization dollars for which many houses in Buffalo do not currently qualify.

Governor-elect Andrew Cuomo just announced $2.1 million for exactly this sort of weatherproofing work, directed at the City of Buffalo’s low-income neighborhoods. (The funds come from $9.5 million that Attorney General Cuomo won in a 2007 court-ordered settlement with American Electric Power over federal Clean Air Act violations.) We’ll soon see if the Public Service Commission will demand that National Fuel adapt its Conservation Incentive Program to conform with the new governor’s priorities.

We're mad as hell, too

Last Wednesday, for the second time in a week, more than 500 people came together to tell their government what they believe it ought to be doing.

First it was a public meeting at City Honors on waterfront development, two Saturdays ago, which attracted about 600 citizens fed up with the direction the state agencies in control of Buffalo Inner Harbor have taken over the past 30 years.

Last Wednesday, the target was Erie County Executive Chris Collins and his allies in the Erie County Legislature. At least 500 people came to a public hearing on Collins’ proposed budget last Wednesday to protests cuts to cultural institutions, to the library system, to social programs, and to the office of Erie County Comptroller Mark Poloncarz, who has acted as Collins’ primary counterbalance in government for the past three years. The legislature’s chamber could not come close to accommodating the crowd, much of which remained outside county hall long after the sun had set, hoping that some of the speakers who made it into the room would leave, thus opening their chairs to someone on the outside. Many folks who’d signed up to speak their piece never got the chance.

A legislature staffer told Artvoice that the Democratic majority leaders who ran the public hearing were unprepared for the uprising: Not even the red-green budget of 2005 had provoked such a turnout. But certainly they welcomed the evidence that the Republican’s cuts are unpopular.

Collins has proved to be unshameable. He won’t respond to public protests, and is unlikely to honor any amendments the legislature makes to his budget: He still has not paid out money the legislature restored last year to cultural institutions and to Erie Community College, and shows no inclination to do so. (Six Democratic legislators have filed a lawsuit, hoping a judge will force Collins to release the funds.) It remains to be seen whether the legislature’s Republicans and the Democrats who sometimes caucus with them will respond to Wednesday’s outpouring of criticism.

An incumbent goes down

Congratulations to former Buffalo Police Department cold case detective Dennis Delano, who appears to have unseated the incumbent, James Vallone, in the race for Cheektowaga Town Justice. The efforts by Vallone supporters to keep Delano off the ballot were a portrait of Western New York political machinations at their sleaziest and most self-destructive.

Running the public library like a business

The concept of the public library gained steam in the 19th-century, when it became recognized that an educated and literate population was an overall plus for a society. Of course, one of the biggest supporters of the institution in the US was Scottish-American business titan Andrew Carnegie, who pumped more than $60 million (in 19th-century dollars) into building nearly 3,000 such libraries around the country, which were then to be supported publicly.

Fast-forward to 2010, and it’s clear they ain’t making businessmen like Carnegie anymore—at least not in Erie County.

The last time the Buffalo and Erie County Public Libraries were facing drastic cutbacks, in 2005, there was strong opposition from the Board of Trustees and library administration. Not so today.

Timothy Galvin is president of the Buffalo and Erie County Librarians’ Association. He’s also the manager of interlibrary loan, e-branch electronic resources, and phone reference services. He’s been a librarian with the county for 22 years. Speaking after the public protest that drew a couple hundred library patrons and supporters to Lafayette Square on a cold Saturday afternoon, he explained, “The library trustees are not part of our advocacy. They’ve chosen not to support us, even though it is their job to do so.”

A message sent to library supporters by Sharon Thomas, chair of the B&ECPL Board of Trustees, explains it this way:

For the past few weeks there has been an abundance of letters and comments published in the Buffalo News, on Facebook, listserves and back and forth through e-mails about the Library System’s current situation. Some of the comments are positive, some negative, some accurate, some inaccurate and some malicious in nature.

It is most disturbing to me and my fellow Library Board members that some people are intent upon criticizing the actions of others. While the trustees have not endorsed the rallying type of advocacy which occurred back in 2005, we have certainly been working behind the scenes to get our message directly to the elected officials and to the public.

As about 230 full and part-time library workers are being told they will be out of a job sometime after January 1, and hours are being slashed at branches to such an extent that they will no longer meet state standards, some are wondering if there is more to the board’s flaccid advocacy style than meets the eye.

While usage has been shooting up, and less than two percent of the county budget goes to libraries, it’s difficult to understand why the trustees aren’t taking the opportunity to have it out with Collins. But then, there’s the fact that since 2007, five of the trustees have given nearly $20,000 to Collins for Our Future, the county executive’s political war chest.

Among them, Anne Leary ($1,000 or $3,000, if you count a joint donation with her husband), Rick Lewis ($10,000), Hormoz Mansouri ($1,000), John Schmidt, Jr. ($600), and Wayne Wisbaum ($4,349). B&ECPL Executive Director Bridget Quinn-Carey gave $200 between March 2009 and June 2010.

If you add in the $30,000 contributed since 2007 to Collins for Our Future by Victor Rice, president of the Library Foundation of Buffalo & Erie County, you see that this small handful of powerful people gave almost $50,000 to put Collins in office. One can only hope that they are in fact using that influence to advocate behind the scenes to persuade the county executive to preserve this public institution for the benefit of the all.

Collins named some of these people to their positions on the B&ECPL Board of Trustees. Now it remains to be seen whether they have the will to advocate on behalf of library supporters.

In the meantime, the public continues to organize their opposition to library cuts. Concerned supporters are urged to sign an online petition at: http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/savebecpl/.

Your Republican state senate

Though it’s not official, it’s getting there: On Tuesday, as absentee ballots continued to be counted, Republican Mark Grisanti’s lead over State Senator Antoine Thompson, the incumbent Democrat, dropped from 597 votes to 519. But Thompson’s gains came in his City of Buffalo strongholds. Next to be counted are absentee ballots from voters in Grand Island, Tonawanda, and Niagara Falls—areas where Grisanti trounced Thompson at the polling machines on election day.

Democrats aren’t having any of that, but hiring big-name lawyers and threatening to call for time-intensive hand counts of all the votes isn’t likely to change the outcome: Democrat Suzi Oppenheimer is holding on to her small lead in Westchester, and Republican Jack Martins continues to lead incumbent Democrat Craig Johnson in Nassau County. If both Grisanti and Martins hold on, the Republicans win the majority, 32-30. If only one of them wins, and Oppenheimer holds on, then Albany will be plunged into chaos, with the State Senate split 31-31, and every senator becoming a party of one.

Governor-elect Andrew Cuomo clearly doesn’t want to wait months for the structure of the State Senate to be determined. He wrote a letter this week to New York Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman asking Lippman to fast-track all court proceedings regarding the outcome of these three races.

What’s all this mean for Western New York? Well, a Republican State Senate is likely to approve hydrofracking for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale this spring—but then, a Democratic State Senate would probably approve hydrofracking, too. It’s bad news for same-sex marriage, but the Democrats couldn’t manage to get that passed during their stormy tenure in the majority anyway. (Which is not to say that advocates shouldn’t press their senators for a vote on the floor: One of the true reforms that came out of the 2009 leadership coup is that any senator can bring a bill to the floor for a vote, without the sanction of his party leaders. So make them responsible for their campaign promises, folks.) A local Democrat like Tim Kennedy may have a hard time bringing home substantial cash to his district, and be made to work short-staffed out of a lousy office, but Grisanti, if he wins, should be well provided for. And Niagara County’s George Maziarz, whatever one thinks of him, is sitting in the catbird’s seat.

It’s just too soon to know the character of the next State Senate. My thoughts turn instead to all the staffers who are about to lose their jobs. Antoine Thompson employed a legion of folks who will be polishing resumes. And Democratic Majority Leader Pedro Espada kept an upstate office here staffed with Grassroots and Steve Pigeon allies such as Alonzo Thompson and Michael Darby Where are these guys going to go? How about attorney Lisa Yaeger, who’s been at the Erie County Board of Elections every day, fighting for her boss’s job?

geoff kelly, lou ricciuti, buck quigley

blog comments powered by Disqus