Clean Air Coalition Worried About Cleanup at Tonawanda Coke

Supervisor: Project is too important to be "Good Theater"

Tonawanda Coke. August 2018 (WBEN Photo/Mike Baggerman)

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TONAWANDA, NY (WBEN) - Who's responsible?  On Wednesday evening, the Clean Air Coalition held a community meeting to discuss their concerns about the potential for taxpayer money to be used in the cleanup of the now abandoned Tonawanda Coke site.

The main issue, according to the coalition, is the process through which the site can be cleaned up. The current redevelopment plan set forth by now-property owner Jon Williams calls for Brownfield tax credits, which are credits designated to developers for their efforts to remediate a site. However, through this process, taxpayers would likely be on the hook.

The coalition does not believe taxpayers should be held financially responsible, so they would like to see the site entered into the federal Superfund program, in which the polluter or responsible party is required to pay for remediation.

"We believe that polluters should pay for their mess, and the Superfund program makes them," said Rebecca Newberry, the executive director of the Clean Air Coalition. "The Brownfield program allows the developer to access tax credits that will let, inherently, the polluter off the hook and not pay as much - we don't think that's right."

Town of Tonawanda Supervisor Joe Emminger called the hearing a "stunt" in a Thursday morning tweet. 

"I support the site going into the Brownfield Cleanup Program because it will clean up the contamination on the site to industrial standards and it will allow the new owner to redevelop the site in a must faster timeframe," Emminger tweeted. "Site gets cleaned up and redevelopment will occur in years, not decades." You can hear Emminger's full remarks at the bottom of this story.

Tonawanda resident Gordon Albright was at the meeting, and he stands with the coalition and became rather animated when discussing it.

"I'm concerned - I think this problem should be handled through the Superfund, the federal government, because I think they'll see to it that a more thorough cleanup job is done so in the future and the present, it won't present a real grave health risk to the residents of this community," said Albright. "I think that, through the Brownfield, it won't be supervised by the federal government, and I don't think it will be a thorough job because I think the Town of Tonawanda, quite frankly, is more concerned about getting the business in there to generate taxes than they are to protect the health and future health of the residents of this community, and that should be the number-one priority."

Newberry is also frustrated with the state's response, or lack thereof, regarding this matter.

"It's not our job to hold public processes; the state has refused to," she said. "We asked for a public hearing as part of the 30-day comment period back in December, and we heard nothing from the state for a month, and then yesterday, I got an email saying they refused to hold our hearing.

"We think that is completely inappropriate especially given the criminal history of this company, the criminal history of the site, and the fact that so many people live near the over 100-acre site," Newberry continued.

At the meeting, members of the community wrote letters to the DEC asking them to reject Williams' development plan, and those letters will be mailed before the public comment period ends on Saturday.

Newberry explained that they now need Governor Cuomo and the commissioner of the DEC to refer the site to the federal Superfund program.

Listen to Newberry's full comments below:

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