Tom Mayer has an interesting job.
He is the facility manager at GM’s Tonawanda Engine plant in New York. The three-building complex totaling 3.1 million square feet produces engines for the Chevrolet Corvette Stingray, Malibu, Silverado, and Impala; Buick Regal; Cadillac ATS and CTS; and GMC Sierra.
Close to Buffalo, N.Y., the site sits across the street from the banks of the Niagara River, just east of Canada.
Because of its proximity to our neighbors to the North, the permits to regulate the plant’s water discharge are stricter than if international waters didn’t pass by the plant every day.
To put Mayer’s role in perspective, he must ensure no more than the equivalent of three drops of discharge from an eye dropper fall into an Olympic-sized swimming pool holding 660,000 gallons of water.
With a strong commitment to the environment, resource preservation and plant performance, his team closely monitors water flow.
Water is an important part of the facility’s operations as the liquid naturally cools the building versus relying solely on traditional HVAC systems. About eight million gallons of river water loop throughout the plant every day to get the job done before safely returning to the environment.
Tonawanda plays a significant part in GM’s overall efforts to reduce its environmental footprint. Every day it helps the company achieve progress toward energy, water and waste reduction commitments by 2020.
The facility was the second GM plant to reach landfill-free status, meaning all daily waste is reused, recycled or converted to energy. That total roster has since climbed to 110 facilities, which shows Tonawanda’s pioneering drive.
In fact, it was more than 15 years ago that the facility voluntarily pursued and earned ISO 14001 certification that provides an environmental management system to help improve resource efficiency, reduce waste and drive down costs.
Efforts have only revved up from there, from earning ENERGY STAR® awards for reducing energy use to implementing various recycling and reuse strategies.
Just recently the facility developed a bio-retention area that decreases stormwater entering the Niagara River—an important, proactive measure, especially in the winter when road salt and other possible contaminants are prevalent.
The investment came at a good time; Buffalo now ranks as the fourth snowiest city in America with 95 inches of snow recorded this season.
“Simply put, the retention area acts as a giant sponge used to capture runoff,” said Mayer. “Water from storms is diverted into an area where it’s naturally dissipated, as opposed to going directly into the Niagara.”
Mayer and the facility’s environmental engineers regularly put their heads together to identify new projects to benefit the environment. Their latest idea: joining the ranks of 26 other GM sites with a certified wildlife habitat program.
Last summer, 100 local elementary and high school students helped the facility transform a brownfield space — formerly a GM foundry– into a green buffer that will provide a home for native vegetation, pollinators and other creatures.
“Seeding and tree planting are part of our first step toward certification,” said Mayer. “As we move forward, we will reseed various areas and increase the plantings to ensure its longevity and growth.”
Aside from plantings, the facility has hung bat houses and has plans to add bird houses to increase wildlife visitors. Future efforts will help increase attractiveness of the area while enabling the grounds to serve as a living laboratory for student groups to learn more about the environment.
To look back on the past 15 years that Mayer has been a part of Tonawanda’s environmental efforts, there has been a noticeable shift from taking preventive to proactive action. And he doesn’t see that changing.
“In the past, environmental activity was viewed as one of those ‘got to dos’,” said Mayer. “But now it’s part of our normal activity. Environmental sustainability is ingrained in the DNA of Tonawanda Engine.”