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NIAGARA FALLS – A waste incinerator operator in the city violated state law when it started construction on a project before its permit application was approved, state environmental regulators said.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation said Covanta Niagara violated state environmental law and agency regulations by starting to build a boiler system at its facility at 56th Street and Frontier Avenue.

After a letter about the matter from three area residents was made public, the state agency said it was reviewing its options “regarding the appropriate enforcement actions,” which could include fines, civil penalties and an order to stop construction. Covanta Niagara burns about 800,000 tons of waste a year and turns it into steam and electricity while releasing pollutants into the air.

A year ago, it applied for a renewed air emissions permit from the state, which would cover what the facility already releases as well as the emissions from a new natural gas boiler and 190-foot smokestack. A public comment period on the renewed air permit ended Monday.

Although Covanta had not yet received the permit, it recently started construction on the new gas boiler and smokestack. Amy Witryol of Lewiston and Christopher Kudela and Shirley Hamilton, both of Niagara Falls, asked regulators, in their letter, to order Covanta to halt construction and dismantle what was already constructed.

A Covanta spokesman said the company “immediately ceased construction.”

“Covanta Niagara misunderstood the authority it had received from (the state), believing it could start construction on a new natural gas boiler without an approved air permit as long as it obtained the permit before operating the boiler,” spokesman James Regan said.

In the agency’s letter to the company, dated Aug. 1, it acknowledges that the agency was aware construction had begun, since that information was included in a May 13 agency report. For each day construction continued without a permit, the company would have been subject to additional penalties, the agency said. Any failure to halt construction could have subjected Covanta to criminal charges.

A contractor for Covanta Niagara received the required mechanical permit for the boiler and smokestack work from City Hall on Wednesday.

In their letter to regulators last week, the area residents said the agency was asked in May about whether the construction was allowed before the new air permit was approved. Regulators responded to a July email saying they had already answered the question, but the residents say they never got a response, according to their letter.

In addition to the boiler and smokestack, Covanta Niagara plans to build a rail spur to allow it to accept waste via train, a pipeline to provide steam to the new Greenpac paper mill, as well as a new office and maintenance building.

Being able to accept waste via train would be necessary as the company is negotiating to bring garbage here from the New York City area. A hearing on the $30 million in projects at Covanta will be held at 6 p.m. Wednesday in City Hall.

email: abesecker@buffnews.com