A few years ago I was knocking on the doors of residents in both the City and Town of Tonawanda who lived in neighborhoods downwind of the Tonawanda Coke plant. Inevitably, I would talk to people who would stand on their porches and point at their neighbors’ homes. They would go down the street and say cancer, cancer, tumors, cancer, leukemia, cancer, died last year, etc. Their point was crystal clear. Air pollution from Tonawanda Coke and other industrial facilities was killing people.
The company, of course, was convicted in Federal Court in 2013 of violating both the Clean Air Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. These criminal convictions landed one of the Tonawanda Coke’s managers in prison and resulted in millions of dollars in fines for the company, itself. The court also placed the company on probation while it continued to operate. The Clean Air Coalition, a grassroots organization founded by Jackie James Creedon and others to fight polluters such as Tonawanda Coke, felt that its efforts had finally been rewarded.
A couple of months ago the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) cited Tonawanda Coke for 176 new violations and issued a cease and desist order. The corporation appealed and a hearing has been scheduled for October 10th. In the meantime, the federal government accused Tonawanda Coke of violating its probation. I was present in Federal District Court recently when the government presented its case to Judge William Skretny. It was apparent from the outset of the hearing that Judge Skretny appreciated the gravity of the situation and that his primary concern was for the residents of Grand Island and the Tonawandas who were breathing the plant’s harmful emissions every day. Still, in the interests of fairness, he was obliged to allow the company an opportunity to defend itself. In so doing, though, he made the parties adhere to a strict timeline. As of this writing, no decision has been reached in the case.
Meanwhile, several individuals and groups called up Tonawanda Coke to be shut down. Working with Rebecca Newberry of the Clean Air Coalition and Erie County Legislature Chairman Peter Savage I sponsored a resolution that was passed by the county legislature at our September 6th meeting. Unlike resolutions passed by some municipalities, ours did not explicitly call for the closing of Tonawanda Coke. Instead, it anticipated that closure is probably going to happen at some point and looked to deal with an uncertain future. The resolution urged the court, the DEC and the EPA to require the corporation to develop an emergency shutdown plan. It also calls for any fines assessed to the corporation to help fund health monitoring of nearby residents, as well as plant employees. It also supports using fine money to retrain displaced workers. Finally, it suggests that fine money support a cleanup of the site, as the last thing we need is another brownfield. By holding Tonawanda Coke accountable in this manner, we can begin to address the problems it has created over too many years.
If you have thoughts you would like to share, I would love to hear from you. I can be contacted by phone at 858-8672 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.