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Brookhaven residents hit pending settlement of Covanta suit

The Brookhaven Landfill in Brookhaven hamlet.

The Brookhaven Landfill in Brookhaven hamlet.  Credit: Jessica Rotkiewicz

A group of residents who live near the Brookhaven Landfill are expressing "grave" concern about possible settlement of a lawsuit alleging a power plant owner dumped improperly mixed toxic ash at the landfill for as long as a decade.

Gov. Kathy Hochul has called for a probe of the matter.

Also, the Hempstead Town Council was scheduled to consider the proposed settlement at a board meeting Tuesday.

Newsday reported in September that Covanta, which owns the waste-to-energy facility in Hempstead, had offered to settle a lawsuit filed on behalf of Brookhaven and Hempstead towns, and others.

But attorneys for the plaintiffs said the proposed settlement would reimburse only a tiny percentage of the hundreds of millions of dollars the towns, Garden City and the Long Island Power Authority paid over the years.

In a letter to Hochul Monday, a group of Bellport, Brookhaven and Mastic residents said settlement of the suit would have "grave implications for public health and safety of the largely Black, Latinx and working-class community that is adjacent to the Brookhaven Landfill, as well as for our region’s air and water."

The group, known as the Brookhaven Landfill Action and Remediation Group, said the case "must be allowed to go through the justice system. It should not be halted because of the backroom dealings of Long Island politicians who have shown their willingness to trample on the rights of a community like ours for their own gain."

The group said it was "urgently requesting" Hochul's assistance.

In response to Newsday questions, Hochul spokeswoman Hazel Crampton-Hays said Hochul directed the state Department of Environmental Conservation to investigate Covanta's operations and activities "at the time of the alleged incidents," and "that investigation is ongoing."

Michael Cahill, an attorney for Brookhaven, said the town "does not comment on matters in litigation."

In an email to Newsday in September, Cahill said the town was, "supportive of the parties’ attempts to settle the case."

Covanta spokeswoman Nicole Robles called allegations in the lawsuit "baseless."

Robles said the case was an, "intimidation lawsuit brought by a disgruntled employee and his lawyers seeking a windfall for themselves."

The waste-to-energy plant provides, "an essential service to Long Island and its residents, and we are totally committed to the health and safety of the communities we serve," Robles said. "The lawsuit is not necessary to protect these communities."

In previous statements to Newsday, Covanta said the company had, "thoroughly investigated all of the allegations" by Fahey and "found them to be meritless."

Covanta’s Hempstead Waste-to-Energy facility is supervised by an on-site monitor from the state Department of Environmental Conservation, Robles said.

"The allegations in this lawsuit have been known to the DEC for years, and Covanta has never been cited for any violations in connection with the allegations," Robles said.

Documents filed in the case said a former DEC monitor at the plant "improperly leaked" to company managers the existence of a state probe into Covanta operations after whistleblower Patrick Fahey's suit was filed under seal in 2013. Fahey formerly worked at the plant.

A DEC spokeswoman said the agency is "actively investigating Covanta’s operations and activities at the time of the alleged incidents," and continues to monitor and oversee plant operations

More than $890 million has been paid to plant owner by the municipalities and LIPA in the period the alleged improprieties occurred.

The suit was filed on behalf of the towns and village, and LIPA, and the state.

But none of those parties has taken an active part in the case, and some are working to settle it, against the wishes of the whistleblower and his attorney.

State Attorney General Letitia James has declined to comment on it, after at least one of her predecessors investigated the lawsuit's assertions.

"Covanta's own documents demonstrate that it engaged in fraudulent testing, misrepresented its procedures and dumped a multimillion-dollar dangerous mess of ash at the Brookhaven Landfill," David Kovel, an attorney for Fahey, said in September.

"By trying to settle the case on the cheap, the towns are putting Covanta’s interests before their taxpayers," Kovel said. "Hazardous waste dumping has financial consequences, and it is Covanta that should bear them, not the citizens of Long Island."

Covanta operates four waste-to-energy plants on Long Island, processing 1.8 million tons of municipal waste annually while producing a combined 125 megawatts of energy. A megawatt powers between 800 and 1,000 homes.

The plants are in Hempstead, Babylon, Islip and Huntington. Covanta owns all but the Islip plant, which is owned by Islip Town.

In July, Covanta announced it had reached an agreement to be acquired by EQT Infrastructure, a Sweden-based investment conglomerate, for $5.3 billion.

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