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Community considers next steps in Tonawanda Coke fight

Tonawanda Coke has made a number of promises to clean up its act – and its air emissions – since the manufacturer and Clean Air Act violator was dragged back into court over probation violations this month.

So when roughly a dozen community members met Saturday to discuss future steps against the company, City of Tonawanda resident Joyce Hogenkamp had one question: "Do you think the repairing of the coke ovens, repairing of the flue caps, cleaning out the goose necks – do you honestly think that that path they're going down now, as the judge ordered them to, is going to really reduce the emissions that we're going to be breathing in?"

It was a big question, given the company's long history as a community polluter. Last week, U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny allowed Tonawanda Coke to stay open, despite its probation violation, but ordered the company to perform new testing on the emissions coming from the plant's smokestacks to determine whether plant emissions presented an ongoing health danger to the community.

Nurse researcher Jessica Castner, who worked on the design for a related health study by the University at Buffalo, said she couldn't answer that, but she did express concern about the manufacturing plant's age and "dilapidated" condition.

"I think you are very reasonable to question how sustainable is this change," she said. "I think those are excellent questions and you deserve answers."

Saturday's meeting was one of two being held, both in the Town of Tonawanda and on Grand Island, to encourage local residents to maintain pressure on government authorities who have decision-making authority over the company's ability to remain open. The next meeting will be Oct. 8 on Grand Island.

Jackie James-Creedon, head of Citizen Science Community Resources, urged all community members to send letters to James Tierney, the state's deputy commissioner for the Department of Environmental Conservation. The DEC has granted Tonawanda Coke a hearing date of Oct. 10 after threatening to revoke the plant's air permits.

She also invited Castner to speak to the community about the harmful health impacts of benzene, formaldehyde and other dust particles that could be coming from the plant.

Hogenkamp, who suffers from a thyroid condition, has sealed up the windows to her bedroom and living room with caulk to keep her and her family from breathing in emissions since her home falls within the direct path of the plant's discharge plume. She had informed the Judge Skretny of a "black oil soot" that covered her outdoor patio and asked that the judge either re-sentence Tonawanda Coke to another 10 years of probation or shut the company down.

Phil Haberstro, chairman of Citizen Science Community Resources, urged residents to stay committed and patient.

"If you think about this from a historical perspective, this has already been 15 years it's taken us to get to this point," he said. "But if there's good news in all of that, it's that for years, we didn't know. And now, at least we do, and we're doing something about it."

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