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FAA requests probe of air quality near burn plant in Westbury

Employees at a Westbury air traffic control facility

Employees at a Westbury air traffic control facility are concerned about the health effects of working near the Covanta waste-to-energy incinerator, above, in Hempstead. Credit: Todd Maisel

The Federal Aviation Administration has contacted two federal agencies to look into health concerns of employees at a Westbury air traffic control facility located beside a waste-to-energy incinerator accused in a whistleblower lawsuit of ash-disposal irregularities.

The FAA, in a statement, said it has requested air monitoring and other checks in the wake of employee concerns. In the building’s lobby, a union representing 250 air traffic controllers has placed a “Cancer Incidence Collection Box,” offering workers anonymous forms to report health histories, an effort a union official said was related to concerns about plant emissions.

“Our employees’ health and safety [are] very important to the FAA,” the agency said in a statement Monday. “We are looking into concerns expressed by some NY TRACON employees about workplace health issues.” TRACON stands for Terminal Radar Approach Control, the primary control facility for Kennedy, LaGuardia, Newark and local Long Island airports. Around 400 people work at the facility, according to the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, which represents most of them.

Covanta, the New Jersey company that owns the plant, said it has been in contact with the FAA about the concerns, which it says have been studied extensively and found to be unwarranted. "Study after study has shown that living near a facility like the one in Westbury does not have adverse impacts on health," Covanta spokesman James Regan said. 

The FAA said it has provided information to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for review.

“We also will send them the results of air quality tests taken inside the facility earlier this month, which we expect to receive soon,” the FAA said. “Employees, who are representing their unions, and management officials are involved in the inquiry."

The concerns follow a report in Newsday last month about a lawsuit filed by a former power plant employee who charged that the company improperly mixed, or failed to mix, toxic fly ash and bottom ash that results from burning some 2,800 tons of garbage at the plant each day. 

Employees at the FAA facility have long expressed concerns about air quality at their facility a few hundred feet from the plant. 

“We’ve been dealing with issues with that place for 30 years,” said Kevin Maney, president of the air traffic controllers union’s Westbury employees branch. “Some people feel that when they come to this facility that they have respiratory, allergy and sinus issues that they don’t have when they are home.” In addition to air testing, the union wants the agency to conduct soil testing.

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) called employees' health concerns a "serious and legitimate matter that requires a thorough investigation by CDC, NIOSH and environmental regulators. If any further cause for concern is identified, prompt action must be taken to eliminate any risks.”

Regan said more than 99.9 percent of the plant's stack emissions are "what is typically found in air: water vapor, nitrogen, oxygen, and carbon dioxide." The remainder is "well below" allowable state and federal limits.

“There’s a lot of data here that shows there is no issue with the cooling tower, and there’s so much data and reports on the facilities themselves,” he said, calling allegations in the lawsuit “meritless.”

One manager at the FAA facility, noting he was speaking for himself and not the FAA, said workers have long worried about odors and emissions from the plant. “You can actually see the plumes of smoke and mist coming onto your car," said John Cacavale, a 12-year employee.

Sometimes, he said, the odors can penetrate the air filtration system in the FAA facility. “There are times it’s so bad that when it’s picked up by the air handlers at work, there’s a musty, garbagey smell in the facility itself.”

Covanta’s Regan said studies show the plants “do not pose unacceptable health risks to local residents.”