UB study on Tonawanda Coke a concern for residents

Residents cite a lack of transparency over use of $12 million

Mike Baggerman
October 17, 2019 - 3:00 am

WBEN Photo/Mike Baggerman

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TONAWANDA, N.Y. (WBEN) - Despite closing a year ago, Tonawanda Coke remains a source of frustration for nearby residents, who are sounding the alarm on a lack of transparency by the University at Buffalo related to a study commissioned after the plant's closure.

Tonawanda Coke closed its doors last October 23 after violating its probation regarding opacity standards. The company was ordered by a federal judge to commission a study and involve the community in that study. With that order, researchers at the University at Buffalo were given more than $12 million to study the site's soil and impact to the nearby community.

READ MORE: Elevated levels of soil pollutants found in three areas around Tonawanda Coke

In March, multiple municipal leaders said the university is not being transparent with what they're researching and how the money is being used. In response to concerns, the University at Buffalo said then that thousands of residents have enrolled in the environmental health study and that the soil study work was reimbursed with settlement funds from Tonawanda Coke. 

Members of the Citizens Science Community Resources will speak before the Erie County Legislature on Thursday on the issues between the community and Tonawanda Coke.

"Clearly, we don't see outcomes and results in our communities," Ken-Ton resident Jackie James, who is a member of the CSCR, said.

James said that the money is benefiting UB and not the victims of Tonawanda Coke.

Another source of frustration for activists like James is the lack of an environmental health center that was supposed to be a part of the study.

"We entrusted the $12 million to SUNY RF on behalf of UB and the $700,000 for the soil study to direct the monies to our group or a portion of our money," she said. "That did happen, but there were issues that we have addressed in the past."

The center would offer programs such as education classes and a CSRC lending library for their non-profit that would be located at 3200 Elmwood Avenue.

James said the University at Buffalo has not been in contact with residents recently and has no idea why they haven't.

"We've been shut out," she said. "We don't matter. We want to be heard as a community. We need to be heard as a community. We're still recovering from the 40 years of breathing in this toxic air from Tonawanda Coke. We need to move forward and heal from this horrible legacy."

Representatives from the University at Buffalo were invited to Thursday's Government Affairs committee meeting.

THE UNIVERSITY AT BUFFALO PROVIDED THE FOLLOWING STATEMENT

"The University at Buffalo is firmly committed to investigating how pollution and other factors have affected the health of citizens who live and work near the former Tonawanda Coke site. Guided by scientific expertise and aided by strong community involvement, UB researchers are conducting a rigorous and unbiased epidemiological study. The goal is to provide members of the community and policymakers with new information to make long-term decisions that improve public health and reduce the risk of disease."

UB also said they received only $10 million of the money from Tonawanda Coke because the company went bankrupt and was unable to make its final $2 million payment. They said claims that they are using the money to further the personal research of academics are "untrue" and that the research team has provided routine progress reports and financial data to the U.S. Probation and Pretrial Services Western District of New York.

A university spokesperson also said they operated an environmental health education center in Tonawanda from October 2016 to July 2018 until their lease expired.

"In the interim, researchers and the community advisory committee have been working on alternative avenues for community outreach and education," the university said in a statement.  "Examples include a website with environmental health resources, a newsletter, seasonal fact sheets for healthy living, and outreach at public events. Additional resources will be made available to the public in the future, and when researchers have results to share."

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