Proposed R&D project at Pfizer campus promises jobs, but many residents fear emissions

BY CHERYL SLAVIN

More than 100 Orangetown and Clarkstown residents showed up at the Pearl River Library Monday night for a meeting to express concerns about an expansion proposal by research and development company Anellotech, a lessee at the Pfizer Pearl River campus. Currently, Anellotech leases space for corporate offices and a small research laboratory.

The expansion plans call for an additional 84 foot high laboratory building with a vent pipe extending up another 4-6 feet. Anellotech claims that any emissions emanating from the pipe will be minimal and well below state and federal safety guidelines. The company currently employs 23 persons.

The community, however, has raised concerns about the levels of benzene, toluene and xylene that will actually be released in close proximity to their schools and homes. An online petition on Change.org has already collected over 1,300 signatures opposing the plans, and a Facebook page, Stop Anellotech, has 915 members. The meeting was organized by residents Heather Hurley and Carmel Reilly who live near the Anellotech site.

Anellotech Vice President for Research and Development Charles Sorenson explained at the meeting the company’s primary focus is the development of a “green” technology using a “zeolite-based catalyst” and pyrolysis to convert “non-food biomass material,” such as wood and corn by-products, into chemicals such as benzene, toluene, and xylene (BTX) which can then be sold to industrial consumers.

The process also produces carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, water and coke (a carbon-based fuel) as by-products. Sorenson stated that the expansion will continue the next phase of development to test how well the process works while using gravity in taller equipment.

At the meeting, Sorenson compared the amount of BTX released into the air through the vent pipe as equivalent to the emissions of five cars idling 24/7. He noted that the levels of benzene present in gasoline, car emissions and cigarette smoke are already considered safe for human exposure, and posited that whatever is released from his facility would not significantly increase risk to human health and safety.

Residents, however, questioned the veracity of those claims. In addition to noting discrepancies between the company’s filings and Sorenson’s statements, many called upon Sorenson to be more explicit about the exact amount of toxic chemicals that would be released, rather than simply offer assurances of safety.

Sorenson did not offer that information at the meeting, questioning the competency of the public to understand it as well as stating that it contains confidential proprietary information that he could not release. He noted that he had given the information to the State Department of Environmental Conservation, which he said is more than his company was required to do. He also said that his company might be willing to release the proprietary information for inspection by a qualified third party.

Resident Kathie Kelly, a health care professional, disputed the company’s claims that the toxic chemicals would dissipate in the air. She noted that airborne chemicals can be washed back down to earth through rain and end up in the soil and water surrounding their homes. Resident Manny Larenas challenged the trustworthiness of any representation by the company, asserting that any corporation will always be more interested in its profitability than in safeguarding the health of the host community.

Many other residents pointed out that long after the company finishes its project and moves on, the homeowners and their children will be left to live with any long term impacts. There were also questions about who would actually monitor the emissions, since a “research and development” designation carries less stringent regulatory requirements than a facility built for production.

In addition to residents, the Town Supervisors of both Clarkstown and Orangetown spoke at the meeting. Although the site is located in Orangetown, it shares a border with Nanuet, thus sparking Supervisor Alexander Gromack’s involvement. He stated that he continues to have concerns about the untested technology and the company’s failure to respond to a request made by Clarkstown in October for a detailed narrative on the content of the emissions.

“They are asking us to take their word that it’s alright, without giving us any data on which they base that assertion,” Gromack said.

Orangetown Supervisor Andy Stewart, who has been very vocal on social media about the project, also expressed frustration with the lack of information forthcoming from Anellotech, and stated that until he sees that every question concerning health and safety have been satisfactorily answered, he would not personally support the project. He did note, however, that because the expansion application falls with the permitted usage for its zoned area, final approval rests in the hands of the town’s Planning Board and the Zoning Board of Appeals.

Some residents questioned the process by which the application has even gotten as far as it has, asserting that the Planning Board did not examine the project thoroughly enough for the possibility of chemical pollution. They also questioned why a short-form SEQRA process was used, rather than a long form, which would have required a complete environmental impact study.

Although attending as a private citizen, Planning Board member Robert Dell responded that the board followed the proper rules and procedures, and that the benefits of jobs, tax rateables, as well as legal concerns, must be balanced with consideration of environmental impact. He did not directly address the SEQRA question.

The project has been designated by New York State’s Mid-Hudson Regional Economic Development Council as having “priority status” and earned a grant of an unknown amount. Property rights activist Lynn Teger has questioned whether it is appropriate that the state has prioritized the project before it ever gained local approval.

The next ZBA meeting on this issue will be held January 21, 2015 at 7:30. Documents pertaining to the project can be viewed on the Town of Orangetown’s website at www.orangetown.com.