Schumer adds to FAA controllers' complaints about waste plant

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) says potentially toxic air pollution has been coming from the Covanta Hempstead waste-to-energy plant for over five years. Schumer has called on the federal Environmental Protection Agency to investigate the emissions and ensure that air quality standards are being met. (Credit: News 12 Long Island)

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Employees at a federal air-traffic control facility in Westbury say a neighboring waste-to-energy plant has been spewing white matter into the air for years, and yesterday Sen. Charles Schumer called on the Environmental Protection Agency to investigate.

"On many days of the year, including yesterday, there is a giant white cloud hanging over this parking lot," Schumer (D-N.Y.) said not far from Covanta Hempstead, which turns municipal solid waste from the town into energy that is sold back to the power grid. "Simply from looking at the particles on the cars, this seems to be a very disturbing situation."

John Karnbach, who works at the Federal Aviation Administration's New York Terminal Radar Approach Control facility, said almost every day TRACON employees leave work in cars covered with white specks.

"It's damaging the paint, damaging the glass on the vehicles, it doesn't come off with a car wash," Karnbach said. "We're concerned that hey, we're breathing it in, it's landing on us, what is it doing to us?"

Schumer said he wants the EPA to immediately look into whether the material that's been billowing out of the plant is dangerous. "We don't know the contents of these particles," he said, "but we do know one thing -- clean air for people who live in and work and visit this area shouldn't be a guessing game."

Online records indicate the site has no prior EPA actions. An agency spokesman said the EPA "takes these reports seriously" and will investigate.

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James Regan, a Covanta spokesman, said what's coming out of the Westbury plant is a harmless mist. Regan said the cooling towers, which emit the mist, condense steam that's used to make electricity back into water. "As part of that process, some water evaporates into the atmosphere," he said.

The facility uses well water, which contains calcium, he said. "When water like that dries on cars it can leave water spots," he said, adding that steam coming off the towers can increase in colder months. "Those water droplets are safe," Regan added.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation has received a complaint about the particles at the Covanta plant, spokesman Bill Fonda said in an emailed response to questions. "An investigation is underway."

He said, "DEC has not issued any notices of violation to this facility in recent years. The last violation was in 2001 for nitrogen oxide" emissions.

Covanta has given TRACON employees car wash vouchers to help remove the spots, Regan said, and will be performing maintenance on the cooling towers starting this week that should reduce the amount of moisture coming out of them.

The FAA said officials have conducted tests to determine whether the material being emitted is hazardous, and to date, results have been negative.

"The FAA takes the health and well-being of its employees seriously," the agency said in a statement, adding that officials "will continue to monitor the situation."

But Schumer said the EPA needs to be the one to test the air quality around the site.

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