To the Editor, Rockland Voice
December 02, 2014
Many Orangetown residents (and some from Clarkstown) have contacted me recently to express serious concerns about possible toxic air emissions and other issues related to a proposed expansion of the Anellotech research facility located on the Pfizer campus. Any reasonable person would be concerned by the prospect of toxic emissions near residential neighborhoods, so I have been collecting as much information as I can about the Anellotech proposal and the Town’s review and permitting process and posting this information online. We have answers to some questions, and others remain uncertain.
Though the Town Supervisor and Town Board do not have a direct vote on this project (read on to see why), my bottom line is simple: I will not support this proposal unless I am convinced there is no danger to public health, and I will do everything within my power to ensure that the Anellotech project is thoroughly and carefully reviewed by the appropriate authorities.
Here are some of the most common questions I’ve received, with answers to the best of my knowledge. Anyone interested in reviewing a longer list of Q&As can check out these two documents:
I have also made it easy for the public to access documents related to Anellotech’s applications to the Planning Board and the Zoning Board by posting them online here:
The most basic question, in my mind, is “What, if any, toxics will be present in the emissions from the proposed facility, and furthermore, what mechanisms, technological and regulatory, are planned for monitoring, reporting and limiting toxic emissions?”
Anellotech says we have nothing to worry about. Of course, we cannot be expected to simply take their word for it. I have asked them to prove this by providing verifiable, independent documentation about possible toxic air emissions, and I will share any information that I obtain. In the meantime, here are some common questions and answers:
Q: What is Anellotech and what are they planning to build at the Pfizer site?
A: Anellotech is a company that aims to turn organic waste materials like sawdust into petrochemical products that have a variety of industrial uses. In March, 2013, the company established their corporate headquarters and a research & design laboratory in a building in the northwest corner of the Pfizer Campus, approximately 1,800 feet (0.34 miles) from Middletown Road, 3,250 feet (0.62 miles) from Crooked Hill Road, and about 1,050 feet from West Palisades Avenue in Clarkstown.
In December, 2013 the company began operating a pilot plant at the site that produced samples of their products. In July, 2014, Anellotech applied to the Town for the construction of an addition to their existing facility on the Pfizer campus, to house equipment for conducting research and testing a process for manufacturing commonly used, highly toxic, industrial chemicals (xylene, benzene and toluene) from renewable resource waste products like sawdust. According to documents submitted to the Orangetown Planning Board, the proposed addition has a footprint of 46 feet by 49 feet (approximately 80% the size of a standard suburban single family house) and a height of 84 feet. A 15 foot high vent pipe would be attached to the top of the building, bringing the total height to 99 feet. According to Anellotech, this pipe would be stainless steel and less than 6 inches in diameter.
Anellotech says that if their expansion is approved and if their research project is successful, they will move forward with investment in a commercial scale facility for producing these chemicals located in a southeastern state with an active lumber industry (i.e., sources of sawdust).
Q: What are the possible public health impacts of this facility?
A: This is the million dollar question. Benzene, xylene and toluene are toxic chemicals and the community is understandably concerned these chemicals may be present in the air emissions from the facility, or that these or other chemicals may impact the environment or health through accidents involving storage and transportation. Anellotech claims that their vent pipe emissions will not pose a threat to public health but in my mind the burden is on the company to prove these claims.
Q: Did Orangetown encourage Anellotech to locate in Pearl River or give them any grants or tax incentives?
A: No, Orangetown did not seek Anellotech out, recruit, or encourage them in any way to locate here. As a private business, Anellotech on its own initiative entered into an agreement with Pfizer to lease space on their Pearl River site. Since this was a private contract between two private companies the town was not involved in the negotiation. (Of course any facility is subject to fire and building inspection, sewer discharge permit, and other routine regulations.)
The Pfizer site has for decades been zoned LI (Light Industrial) and the use proposed by Anellotech is a permitted “as of right” use in that zone, meaning it doesn’t need a zoning variance from the Zoning Board of Appeals, or any action or approval from the Town Board. (Likewise, building a private home on a residential property would be an “as of right” use that would not need approval from the Town Board since it is already allowed under current zoning).
Q: How come the Supervisor and Town Board don’t have a vote on this proposal? Who does make the decision?
A: The short answer is, the Town Board makes local zoning and other laws, and the Zoning and Planning Boards review project applications for conformance with the law, with common sense and the needs of the community to be protected against concerns such as traffic, drainage, ugliness and health and safety threats. Anellotech’s proposal is subject to review by the Zoning Board, Plannning Board and Board of Architectural Review, and this review is underway. Approvals are always subject to various conditions and modifications designed to protect the community. The Town Board’s role is to recruit and appoint good people to the land use boards. These people have the power, within the limits of the town and state law, to deny building applications or approve them. The Town Board is not directly involved, but does do land use planning work, specifically updating the Town comprehensive plan and amending our zoning law from time to time, for example. What elected officials do not do is review every individual building project that takes place in town—so long as the project complies with the zoning for the site. I suspect that most of the public probably would not want to see elected officials have the power to approve or deny every project, because it could open the door to favoritism or inconsistent application of the law to give approval to some property owners and deny it from others based on who knows who rather than on the merits of the application.
Q: What review has taken place and what will happen next?
A: The Town’s Planning Board, Zoning Board of Appeals, and Architecture and Community Appearance Board of Review all have to approve Anellotech’s application, and will be guided by input from the Rockland County Department of Health and the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation. The Planning Board conducted a review of the project and on September 10 issued a “negative declaration” under State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA) review, meaning that the Planning Board found that there would be no significant adverse environmental impacts from the project, and issued a “preliminary” site plan approval of the project subject to Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) review of “performance standards.” The project would eventually have to go back to Planning Board for final approval.
The Zoning Board of Appeals ordinarily reviews site plans that request variances from the zoning rules, but in this case the project type meets the zoning requirement for its “Light Industrial” zone at the Pfizer campus. However, all new commercial construction must submit to a review by the ZBA of the “performance standards” of their proposed machinery, equipment, ventilation and materials. This technical review also covers odors, noise, vibration, air emissions and other engineering concerns. The ZBA relies upon an expert review by the Town’s engineering department, which reviews the application and determines whether or not the proposed project is in compliance with Town code pertaining to performance standards. More information on performance standards, along with a copy of Anellotech’s application, is among the documents I have placed on the town website for ease of public access.
In the case of Anellotech, following a ZBA meeting on November 19, where the board heard extensive public comment expressing public health concerns, the ZBA voted to postpone any decision until more information becomes available, specifically from the Rockland County Department of Health. Anellotech is scheduled to re-appear at the ZBA on January 21, 2015.
I hope this information is helpful. Much more is available on the town website, with new questions and answers being added regularly.
Please feel free to contact me via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, with additional questions. I will share whatever information I am able to obtain.
Supervisor, Town of Orangetown