Greenidge pipeline: 'could be 100 days'
DRESDEN--Former Watkins Glen Mayor Mark Swinnerton will supervise the construction of a controversial 4.6-mile natural gas pipeline in Yates County that is intended to supply the repowering of a Dresden electric generating plant.
Dale Irwin, the plant's manager, confirmed the hire by Greenidge Generation Holdings LLC in an interview Sunday, June 12. "Mark startsMonday (June 13)," Irwin said. "He's going to come on as overall project manager for pipeline construction and retrofits to the boiler."
The Dresden plant, built in 1937, had burned coal until 2011 when it shut down under financial pressure. Greenidge later acquired the facility and launched efforts to convert it to run primarily on natural gas, and to a lesser extent, biomass fuels.
The repowering project has drawn opposition from the Committee to Protect the Finger Lakes and others who claim it conflicts with state efforts to shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources.
Speakers from CPFL and others voiced their objections at a Dresden public hearing Nov. 4, 2015 sponsored by the state Public Service Commission. Sandra Steingraber of Ithaca, a prominent figure in the push for the 2014 state ban on hydrofracking for natural gas and leader of Concerned Health Professionals of New York, said her group had urged Gov. Andrew Cuomo to place a moratorium on all new gas pipelines.
John Dennis of Ithaca, an opponent of recent efforts to restart another aged plant on Cayuga Lake, noted the Dresden plant lacks modern combined cycle natural gas burning technology. "Don't invest in the past," Dennis said. "This plant is a dinosaur."
But the project has strong local political support -- from James Smith of Torrey (a Yates County Legislator), to state Sen. Tom O'Mara of Big Flats to Congressman Tom Reed of Corning. They have touted the repowered Dresden's usefulness as a "peaking plant" at times of high demand.
At the Dresden hearing, Sara Lattin, an assistant to O'Mara, stressed that the project would provide 104 megawatts of power, new jobs, tax revenues and spin-off economic benefits.
O'Mara is chair of the state Senate's Committee on Environmental Conservation. He is a partner in the law firm Barclay Damon, which represents Greenidge in its bid for state permits. O'Mara also sits on the Regional Economic Development Council for the Finger Lakes, which in December announced that it had obtained a $2 million state grant toward the Dresden repowering.
Greenidge still needs PSC permits to operate the plant and build the pipeline, as well as an air quality permit from the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
The pipeline, which would run through Milo and Torrey and connect the plant to the Empire Pipeline, could be built in as few as 100 days, Irwin said. But construction can't start without all the permits. He said he's hopeful those hurdles will be cleared and the plant will begin operating with gas from the pipeline by yearend.
Irwin said Swinnerton's experience as a construction project manager makes him an ideal hire for the pipeline project. Swinnerton served as mayor of Watkins Glen from 2011 to 2015. He lost his bid to run for reelection as a village trustee in March 2015.
The hiring of Swinnerton may suggest that Greenidge is close to overcoming a recent regulatory snag. In December, the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said the DEC had not adequately addressed air quality issues. Irwin said the company has been working with the DEC and that, "We feel we're there and that we've addressed all EPA issues."
Still, the EPA's intervention will mean more stringent air quality standards for the plant, he said. Greenidge has also dropped provisions that would have allowed it to burn waste oil or coal, he added.
The Greenidge project is part of a broader effort by fossil fuel companies to continue building infrastructure in New York despite Cuomo's statewide fracking ban and his 2014 green energy initiative, Reforming the Energy Vision. The REV plan calls for 50 percent of the state's electricity to come from renewable sources by 2030, and for a 40 percent reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by that date.
Meanwhile, the Public Accountability Initiative (PAI) in Buffalo reported in March that natural gas companies are proposing at least 523 miles of new gas pipelines in the state as well as the three new or converted natural gas plants: Dresden, the CPV Valley Energy Center in Orange County and a proposed Kinder Morgan facility. The PAI analysis found that a cadre of lobbyists connected to Cuomo have been advocating for those energy projects.
PAI noted that Atlas Holdings, parent company of Greenidge, and related entities had contributed $96,000 to Cuomo.
In addition, it disclosed that Greenidge retained Mercury Public Affairs for $396,400 from 2014 to 2015. Mercury partner Michael McKeon served as executive director of Republicans for Cuomo and personally donated $8,000 to his campaign. Several other Mercury employees have ties to Cuomo, including Erick Mullen, a former aide during his first run for governor.
Meanwhile, certain lobbyists hired on behalf of the Orange County plant are now under investigation by Preet Bharara, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. Bharara recently won convictions against the former leaders of both the state senate and the state assembly, and he is now probing Cuomo's executive branch.
While there is no evidence that Bharara's investigation extends to the Dresden project, Irene Weiser, an activist who has followed state energy issues closely, said, "It sure seems like a 'pay to play' deal."
Asked whether Greenidge had been approached by Bharara's investigators, Irwin said, "Absolutely not." He noted that the Greenidge and CPV projects have separate sets of investors and lobbyists.
Correction: The sentence "The REV plan calls for 50 percent of the state's electricity to come from renewable sources by 2030, and for a 40 percent reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by that date." was changed to make the date (year) correct. The original published story listed the date (year) as 2039 it should be 2030.
PETER MANTIUS is a reporter based in Schuyler County. He covered business, law and politics at The Atlanta Constitution from 1983-2000. He has also served as the editor of business weeklies in Hartford, Connecticut and Long Island.