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NIAGARA FALLS – The city’s chief building inspector said Friday he doesn’t think Covanta Niagara’s energy-from-waste incinerator has caused a recent rat infestation in a nearby neighborhood.

Dennis F. Virtuoso, who also is a Niagara County legislator, said he thinks the source of the problem is the reconstruction of nearby Buffalo Avenue.

However, Covanta business manager Kevin O’Neil said the company will help with efforts to end the rat problem, even though Covanta disclaims responsibility for it.

“These are our neighbors,” said O’Neil, whose company is seeking approval for a major expansion to allow for New York City garbage to be shipped in for burning at the incinerator.

Virtuoso said, “When they tore up Buffalo Avenue, they also tore up the sewers, and the rats were living in the sewers. We didn’t have a problem until they started working on the street.”

The infestation area is bounded roughly by Buffalo and Stephenson avenues and 56th and 60th streets, Virtuoso said. Dead rats have been found in alleys there.

O’Neil said rat reports started coming in as soon as the work started on Buffalo Avenue in March.

“Here in our facility, we don’t have a rat problem, and we have 5,000 to 6,000 tons of garbage on hand most of the time,” O’Neil said.

He said Covanta, formerly known as American Ref-Fuel, has been burning trash in the neighborhood for 33 years.

Residents complained that they’ve seen rats jumping off garbage trucks arriving at Covanta. O’Neil said those trucks aren’t Covanta’s; they belong to the municipalities that haul garbage there.

But O’Neil said it’s not unheard of for those trucks to contain rats, raccoons, skunks or other small animals that happen to be in garbage cans or bags when they are collected.

“Every once in a while, a rat jumps out of a truck. They become fuel here,” O’Neil said.

Vituoso said there’s no need for rats to scavenge for food in the neighborhood if they find themselves in Covanta’s trash pile.

“It’s like a smorgasbord for the rats. Why would they ever leave?” he asked.

Virtuoso said he thinks one of the other reasons for the rat problem is a field between Frontier and Stephenson avenues, owned by the state Department of Transportation, which hasn’t been mowed this year. The inspector thinks rats migrating from the sewers are nesting there.

“That’s possible. We do have folks who are talking with the city and the [county] Department of Health,” DOT spokeswoman Jennifer Post said. “We were looking at having [the field] revert to its natural state, but if it’s determined that mowing is needed to address a rodent problem, we would look at it.”

County Environmental Health Director James J. Devald said the blame game can come later.

“That’s been set aside. The main thing is to address the problem,” Devald said. He said the Health Department has been distributing information to homeowners about discouraging rats by covering up garbage cans, cleaning up animal waste and making bird feeders inaccessible.

Devald said Covanta has a licensed exterminator who seldom works off plant property, but he’s been spreading some rat poison, and there’s been talk of having Covanta pay for a baiting program.

O’Neil, the Covanta executive, said most of the homes in the neighborhood are well-kept, but not all.

“I can send over an exterminator to two houses, but that doesn’t help if the other 42 houses don’t take care of their issues,” O’Neil said.

email: tprohaska@buffnews.com