BY C.B. MILLER
Freshman State Senator Rob Ortt’s support of a proposed Pendleton natural gas refinery is throwing the 62nd State Senate seat into a scramble. Concerned residents have been organizing aggressively to stop the project, but their pleas for help from the Senator have gone unanswered.
Planners have argued that rezoning this section of Niagara County would irreparably transform the character of a quite residential town at the metropolitan periphery into a vast industrial district.
This Senate district includes all of Niagara, Orleans, and part of Monroe counties, from Niagara Falls to the Rochester suburb of Greece. It has long been burdened with a toxic industrial legacy that has lead to staggering rates of cancer and autoimmune disease.
Ortt has refused to publicly oppose the industrial project while taking campaign contributions from the firm pushing the project and its executives. The State Republican Party has also received vast contributions from the natural gas industry. For the last several years, industry lobbyists aggressively pushed to legalize hydrofracking in Western New York.
The Republican Party holds a narrow majority in the State Senate.
“Ortt is the hydrofracking candidate who wants to turn a beautiful countryside town into a toxic industrial site that will harm longtime residents,” says one opponent of the project.
Senate Democrats are looking for a candidate to challenge Ortt.
The New York State United Teachers, a statewide union group that has spent heavily in recent Senate elections, is also looking to field a candidate in the district. Local leadership of that organization has performed poorly in recent years, and observers have been waiting for a shake up.
“Unless Ortt comes out tomorrow vigorously opposed to the refinery project, the issue will overwhelm the discourse this election cycle,” he says. “This Senate district will hinge on this public health issue.”
Ortt is the political protege of former Senator George Maziarz, who resigned abruptly two years ago after learning that US Attorney Preet Bharara was probing his office.
In the 2011 redistricting process, the Republican stronghold has redrawn into the City of Niagara Falls in an effort to make Senator Mark Grisanti’s seat more Republican. At the time, Maziarz was a strong incumbent and could easily retain a more competitive district.