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Environmentalists protest proposed Lockport plastics plant

May 24, 2023

An Indian plastics manufacturer wants to build a 13,870-square foot factory in the Town of Lockport, but have met spirited resistance from environmentalist groups.

A proposal by a manufacturer from India to build its first U.S. plastic pipe and packaging factory in the Town of Lockport – with tax breaks – is generating opposition from environmental groups across the state.

They are outraged that a product with proven links to cancer and potential for pollution would be made in Niagara County with support from taxpayers.

A coalition of 63 organizations, led by a Vermont-based nonprofit affiliated with Bennington College, is calling on the Lockport Industrial Development Agency to reject an application by SRI CV Plastics Inc. for up to $600,000 in tax breaks and state incentives for its $2.34 million project.

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The critics say SRI CV’s polyvinyl chloride (PVC) products are not only harmful to the environment and to people because of the chemicals involved in production, but also pose a significant risk of fire and damage to communities. They noted that vinyl chloride – the chemical used to make PVC – is the same chemical that was set on fire and released into the atmosphere in February in East Palestine, Ohio.

“Plastics facilities bring risks to the communities where they are sited,” said Judith Enck, president of Beyond Plastics and the former regional administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “In addition to potential disasters, these plants also expose local residents and workers to toxic chemicals associated with cancer, birth defects, diabetes, and more.”

Enck also said many companies and governments are working to reduce the use of PVC and single-use plastic packaging, and urged Lockport officials to turn away the project.

“Lockport doesn’t deserve this – no one does,” she said. “It’s critical that Lockport’s leaders reject this company’s attempt to settle here and put residents at risk.”

SRI CV, owned by VEVA Holdings Private Ltd. of India , wants to construct a 13,870-square foot manufacturing facility at 1000 IDA Park Drive, using a two-acre parcel of vacant industrial land that it would purchase from the Lockport IDA. The plant would produce PVC plastic pipes and single-use disposable food containers used for food packaging.

Company president Varun Kumar Velumani insisted in an email to The Buffalo News that his company would not be producing plastic raw materials but only ready-to-use end products, using plastic pellets or sheets made by manufacturers such as Exxon Mobil, Formosa, Lyondell Basell, Braskem, LG Chem and Chevron Phillips.

According to documents supplied by Velumani, SRI CV would use materials made from recycled plastic “to the greatest extent possible,” and will be set up to use biodegradable plastics.

Additionally, the use of such “post-consumer recycled resin” will help reduce waste by diverting plastic garbage from landfills and incinerators, while using less energy and producing fewer greenhouse-gas emissions to manufacture new products than using “virgin plastic.” And it would reduce demand for new plastic that would involve extracting fossil fuels and using up natural resources, the documents said.

“This will help address the environmental challenges associated with plastic pollution and reduce the strain on waste management systems in the region,” the documents note. “This can result in reduced greenhouse gas emissions and help mitigate climate change impacts.”

But that’s not good enough, said Margaux Valenti, legal director for Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper, who described the plastic pellets – known as “nurdles” – as “one of our greatest plastic pollution contributors.”

“We find them in our local waterways in pretty great amounts,” she said, noting that plastic in water never completely disappears but just “breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces and gets ingested by fish.” According to a 2019 study in Australia, the average person ingests five grams of plastic each week through water and food – equivalent to a credit card in weight.

During the nonprofit’s Shoreline Sweep this past spring, volunteers on a single morning collected 18,920 pounds of trash from Western New York waterways, of which 80% was plastic, Valenti said. That included 4,234 plastic food wrappers and 2,658 plastic bottles. “So it doesn’t alleviate the risk of plastic production,” Valenti said of Velumani’s reassurances.

SRI CV said the project would represent its initial foray into the U.S. manufacturing market, but it expects to ramp up to a full line of disposable food containers within two years. It expects to hire 20 full-time and five part-time workers over the next two years.

The company is asking the Lockport IDA for more than $300,000 in tax breaks, on top of another $300,000 in state incentives. Otherwise, it wrote in its application, it would not undertake the project .

The IDA will hold a public hearing in Lockport at 8 a.m. on July 13, but Enck said that’s premature and called for a full environmental impact statement first.

Lockport IDA Executive Director Thomas Sy confirmed the application is pending, but would not comment on the criticism.

“We are looking forward as always to comments pro and con,” he said. “Our board will consider any comments and further information from the applicant as with all decisions.”

Since 2000, the environmentalists noted, four of the top PVC producers have accumulated 245 safety and environmental violations, with more than $50 million in fines.

“Lockport is slowly building its tourist economy. This is the last thing Lockport needs if it wants to attract tourists and illustrate any kind of commitment to environmental sustainability,” said Alexis Goldsmith, organizing director with Beyond Plastics.

PVC and other plastics are made from fossil fuels and chemicals, particularly vinyl chloride, a carcinogen that has been linked to liver, brain and lung cancer, leukemia and lymphoma, diabetes, neurological damage, and reproductive and birth defects.

“Vinyl chloride is one of the most studied carcinogens in an occupational setting,” Enck said. “Science tells us there’s no safe level of exposure to vinyl chloride. This is a not a material that you want nonunion workers with inadequate health and safety protections working with every day.”

The manufacturing process also generates emissions and hazardous pollution, which environmentalists say contributes to climate change while also posing a danger to the surrounding community.

“This is not the type of facility you want to attract to your community,” Enck said. “We don’t want this to become a future brownfield site.”

Even if the new plant would not be using the chemical to make new PVC, Enck also questioned how the plastic would be transported to and from Lockport, how it would be stored, and what precautions would be taken, citing the propensity for fires.

“None of that is addressed in the application,” she said. “We’re just seeing more and more fire with facilities that produce or store plastic.”

Most notably, five tanker cars of vinyl chloride and four hopper cars of PVC plastic resin burned during or after the East Palestine train derailment in Ohio, forcing evacuation of the entire town and leaving behind lingering health problems and fears.

Previously, a dozen workers were hurt in a fire at a PVC facility in Point Comfort, Texas in 2021. An earlier train derailment in 2012 resulted in a toxic plume of chemical being released in Paulsboro, N.J. and an explosion at a Formosa Plastics PVC plant in Illinois in 2004 killed employees and released chemicals into the air.

“Communities around manufacturing plants and workers bear the brunt of consistent toxic exposure day after day,” the letter said. “Given the public health and environmental harms of polyvinyl chloride, public dollars should not be used to subsidize a private company that will profit from making PVC pipes and single-use food packaging, which winds up in landfills, burned in incinerators, or polluting the environment.”

A new manufacturing plant also conflicts with state goals and public perceptions, the environmentalists asserted. The critics noted that the draft state Solid Waste Management Plan supports reuse and refill systems to replace single-use packaging, while the state’s Climate Action Council has called on lawmakers to ban single-use packaging as part of the effort to meet emission reduction and environmental justice requirements under the state Climate Act.

Additionally, state lawmakers are considering new legislation that would ban the use of PVC in packaging. And under the U.S. Plastics Pact, more than 100 consumer products companies voluntarily pledged to eliminate PVC in packaging by 2025.

“Even the plastics industry says PVC is the worst of the worst,” Enck said. “So the future is not in polyvinyl chloride.”

Besides Enck’s group, other signatories of the letter include the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Clean Air Coalition of Western New York, New York Public Interest Research Group, Western New York Drilling Defense, Citizens Environmental Coalition, the University at Buffalo’s Department of Chemistry, the Green Party of Erie County and New York State, the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative, Alliance for a Green Economy, New York Climate Action Group, and a host of local organizations from communities across the entire state.

“We’ve been working with groups around upstate New York. Everyone is very concerned about this because of vinyl chloride,” Enck said. “It is a little unusual to have such a large number of groups weigh in on a Lockport financing issues, but it illustrates the seriousness of this issue.”

Reach Jonathan D. Epstein at (716) 849-4478 or [email protected].

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