Tonawanda Seneca Nation’s newly-filed Article 78 lawsuit alongside Earthjustice poses threat for Plug Power in Alabama

Less than five months after Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the development of a massive, new sustainable energy source — the Tonawanda Seneca Nation has filed an Article 78 lawsuit with Earthjustice to prevent the construction of that already-approved project, which is set to become the largest hydrogen plant in North America.

Plug Power, a publicly traded company, plans on constructing a “new-state-of-the-art” green hydrogen processing facility and electric substation  — one that’ll encroach upon the neighboring border of the Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge, a sprawling 10,828-acres federal wildlife preserve nestled within Genesee and Orleans countiesand the straddle the boundary line between New York and the Tonawanda band of the Seneca Nation’s actual reservation in the town of Alabama, New York. 

The expansive $290 million project will call the state’s Science, Technology and Advanced Manufacturing Park its new home producing an estimated 45 metric tons of green liquid hydrogen each day decarbonizing freight-transportation in an effort to wean the Empire State’s reliance on nonrenewable energies ahead of Cuomo’s 2050 carbon-neutrality goal.

Reportedly creating a buffer zone within less than 200-acres from their border, Plug Power’s arrival as the first tenant of the STAMP business park, has already raised serious concerns among those who reside on the Tonawanda Seneca reservation within Genesee County. 

Paul Winnie, a Tonawanda Seneca Nation member, has been airing his grievances about Plug Power and long-lasting impacts that their project poses not only on the surrounding environment surrounding, but his greater community, too.

“In our traditional teaching we give consideration to the seventh generation ahead. I’m trying, but as an endangered species [peoples] we fight for land sovereignty and most of all: survival,” Winnie told FingerLakes1.com. “We need to say enough: to keep our identity, we must maintain our total relationship with Nature.”

Winnie, one of the vocal grassroots organizers on the reservation, helped found and mobilize a group of concerned Tonawanda Seneca residents called the “Seventh Generation Land Defenders,” which is acting independently from the Nation’s leadership and ongoing litigation.

The 23-page Article 78 petition alleges that the Genesee County Economic Development Center “failed to adequately review impact” of their newly-slated electrolysis hydrogen production facility — which has gained the backing of some of the state’s prominent politicians: Cuomo and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.

Plug Power’s presence in the Empire State has been spurred by an unprecedented supply of incentives that are seeking to be approved by the New York Power Authority Board of Trustees at the direct recommendation of Cuomo. 

The Western New York Power Proceeds program has allocated $1.5 million to Plug Power. Upwards of an additional $2 million in Excelsior tax credits are also being considered from Empire State Development. on top of allocating 10 Megawatts of low-cost hydropower from the Niagara Power Project and 143 Megawatts of high-load factor power that NYPA intends to procure on the energy market. 

These incentives marked the first NYPA customer in Plug Power to acquire sizable contributions in accordance with the NYPA’s new green job criteria, which were announced in December 2020. Additional local tax incentives are reportedly being offered by the county as well. 

Laura Berglan, a senior attorney at Earthjustice, who’s involved with their tribal partnership program, insisted that although the Plug Power project is being “touted as a green development initiative,” it seemingly “endangers both the environment and the culture traditions and practices” of the Nation’s peoples.

Members of the Towananda Seneca Nation participate in a traditional tobacco burning ceremony nearby the STAMP plant in mid-May 2021. Courtesy: Paul Winnie

“A thorough environmental review that considers the impacts to the Tonawanda Seneca Nation, and animals and plants on which the people rely, must be conducted in accordance with the law,” Berglan said in a press statement.

The Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge has been considered “a namesake” among the Indigenous communities of Western New York for generations protected by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Meanwhile, Schumer called the announcement “a winning combination of firsts” in a press statement on February 25, 2021.

“After securing its new over 375 job gigafactory in Rochester last month, I applaud Plug Power, a proud Upstate NY-based business with deep roots and hundreds of NYS workers, for doubling down and selecting STAMP as the home of this new production facility,” Schumer said. “I will continue to advocate with the U.S. Department of Energy to secure federal support to help bring this development to full fruition.”

Beyond the possible environment issues, however, the Nation is equally concerned with disruptions from traffic, noise and light pollution that result from the construction of the hydrogen plant.

Grandell Logan, a spokesperson for the Nation, believes that “there will be significant impacts to our people, our way of life and our future generations” — if the project is carried out.

After repeated requests for comment, Plug Power hasn’t responded to FingerLakes1.com.