BY CHERYL SLAVIN
Responding to many months of advocacy by local residents who have vociferously objected to the establishment of a chemical development test facility bordering their neighborhoods, the Orangetown Town Board has proposed changes to the town code that would prohibit the manufacture of benzene, toluene and xylene (BTX) within town borders, as well as prohibit conversion plants from using the gasification process to produce chemicals or fuel from biomass feedstock. The board held a public hearing on the matter at its regularly scheduled meeting June 16.
The origins of the proposed amendments are directly traceable to the controversy that has surrounded the efforts by Anellotech Inc. to expand its pilot biomass-to-chemical conversion plant located on the Pfizer campus in Pearl River. Residents, many of whom have joined the grassroots Stop Anellotech movement, have consistently demanded that Anellotech divulge the full extent to which BTX will be produced at the plant, as well as completely disclose the content of air emissions that will be vented from the facility. The activists continue to claim that Anellotech has been deceptive and unforthcoming. They further assert that any amount of BTX released is dangerous, and that the plant should never have been approved by the town planning board.
Anellotech has responded that its facility will only be producing small sample sized amounts of BTX which will be distributed to potential partners interested in licensing the biomass conversion technology the company is developing. Anellotech also maintains that the air emissions will contain minimal amounts of BTX, far lower than safety standards set by the state and federal governments. David Sudolsky, Anellotech CEO, points out that Anellotech’s expansion plan has passed at least 12 different review boards.
Nonetheless, the controversy has brought to light the absence, within the town code, of any provision specifically addressing the manufacture of BTX or the use of a “gasification” process to do so. As Councilman Tom Morr pointed out before the hearing started, the board unanimously believes that the code should be amended to reflect modern changes in technology.
Eleven people spoke in favor of the amendments; none spoke against. The speakers included planning board member Michael Mandel, who was one of two members who had voted against final site approval of Anellotech’s plans. Although he—as well as the rest of the planning board—felt that the town board should overhaul the code “in totality, and not piecemeal,” he nevertheless supported the proposed changes. He also suggested that the process of pyrolysis, which like gasification uses high heat in a low oxygen environment to convert feedstock into chemicals, be added to the list of prohibited processes. Resident Denise Finnegan-Schorn echoed this suggestion, as did several others, and also requested that the board add language to the code which would clearly define the difference between “manufacture” and “research and development.”
This differentiation has been one of the mains points of contention between the grassroots activists and Anellotech. Research and development facilities are subject to far fewer oversights and permitting requirements; Anellotech has consistently maintained that it is an “R&D” site, and therefore not subject to the greater restrictions placed on “manufacturing.” Stop Anellotech disagrees, contending that any plant that produces BTX, in whatever quantities and for whatever reason, should be subject to the full scope of monitoring that is applied to manufacturers.
The proposed code amendments as currently written do not specifically prohibit the production of BTX—or the use of gasification—at research and development facilities.
At the close of the hearing, the board members agreed that both Mandel’s and Finnegan-Schorn’s suggestions were worth further discussion and possible inclusion in the amendments. However, the board decided to go forward with a vote on the amendments as written, and thereafter introduce the further changes and hold another public hearing. Town attorney John Edwards said that he had not received the County Planning Department’s mandated comments, so the board held the vote over to the town’s regular July 7 workshop.
However, according to activist Heather Hurley, the comments had been faxed by Deputy Planning Commissioner Arlene Miller, the afternoon of the 16th. Miller confirmed to the Rockland County Times that the comments had been faxed that day. Edwards later stated to the Rockland County Times that he did not personally receive the fax, and to his knowledge neither did any of the board members, thus necessitating the delay.
In addition to the public hearing, the board heard a presentation by Dr. William Bahary, a chemical scientist and Orangetown resident, who has been advising the Stop Anellotech movement. He argued that the data on which Anellotech based it claims of safety is faulty and unsubstantiated, and urged the board to hold a full review by a “suitable entity.” When asked by Councilman Valentine whether the public would produce such an entity, Bahary said he would provide names to the board.
More residents spoke against Anellotech’s plans during public comment, as well as demanded that the board not re-appoint Kevin Garvey as chair of the planning committee and Daniel Sullivan as chair of the zoning board of appeals. Despite the public opposition, Garvey was re-appointed by a vote of 4 to 1 (Stewart opposing) and Sullivan was unanimously re-appointed.
The proposed amendments will affect Chapter 43, sections 4.41, 4.42 and 4.45 of the Zoning Law of the Town of Orangetown.