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Tonawanda Coke blasts lack of confidentiality about shutdown

Tonawanda Coke officials confirmed Monday for the first time that the company will close.

"Sadly, largely due to the financial obligations of its criminal sentence, significant and unanticipated expenses, the loss of a funding source, and the multiple and coordinated enforcement actions brought by various government agencies, Tonawanda Coke cannot continue operations," the company said in a statement.

The statement follows what the state Department of Environmental Conservation revealed Friday after a federal court hearing.

"The company began considering this decision last week and immediately started to plan an orderly and safe shutdown process in direct consultation with DEC and EPA," Tonawanda Coke said.

It added: "Despite our understanding that this information would be kept confidential, it was not, causing our workers to learn about the shutdown through the media. This outcome is truly unfortunate. Confidentiality was necessary to ensure the safety of Tonawanda Coke’s workers and the community, as shutting down a coke battery can be a complex and dangerous activity which can only be safely accomplished through careful, detailed planning, and utilization of experienced personnel."

"It was essential that we communicate with our workers to ensure they understood the situation and would continue to operate the battery safely. Despite the disappointing change in circumstance, we are doing our best to ensure a safe and orderly shutdown."

The company concluded by saying it extends "a debt of gratitude to all our workers and sincerely apologize that circumstances beyond our control brought about this untimely end to the company’s existence."

Although the company said it will have an orderly shutdown, the statement did not address potential hazards it will leave behind.

A U.S. Environmental Protection Agency environmental engineer expressed concerns late last week in an affidavit to federal Judge William M. Skretny about an open-air moat at Tonawanda Coke that contained oily liquid. The official feared that chemicals could wind up in the nearby Niagara River during heavy rains once the site is abandoned.

That revelation prompted Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper to issue a strong rebuke of Tonawanda Coke on social media.

"TCC was intentionally ignoring potential overflow into the Niagara River and contamination of our community's drinking water. This is outrageous, and the company's owners should be held accountable for their disregard of human and environmental health," Waterkeeper tweeted.

Over the last few days, local, state and federal officials said that getting Tonawanda Coke to comply with environmental laws was their aim, not shutting down the company.

U.S. Attorney James P. Kennedy Jr. said Friday the government was attempting to make Tonawanda Coke more transparent about its emissions, financial circumstances and future plans.

"The government’s objective has never been to do harm to TCC or its employees," Kennedy said.

Over the weekend, Joseph H. Emminger, the Town of Tonawanda supervisor, said the job losses are regrettable but, from an environmental standpoint, the company had “turned its back on this community years ago.”

“The only people to blame for this situation — the shutdown — are the owners of Tonawanda Coke,” Emminger said. “They have had opportunities to address the problems.”

Community activists also expressed little sympathy for the company following Tonawanda Coke's statement.

"It's easier to deny the truth and blame other people. It's really sad," said Jackie James-Creedon, executive director of Citizen Science Community Resources, which has fought Tonawanda Coke over pollution for more than a decade.

Tonawanda Coke has not yet paid its last installment of about $2 million for a court-ordered environmental health study being conducted by the University at Buffalo, according to Matthew R. Bonner, an associate professor in UB's Department of Epidemiology and Environmental Health.

"If this funding is not received, we will work with the health study’s community and scientific advisory committees to set priorities and adapt our study plans," Bonner said. "We still expect to be able to accomplish much of what we originally proposed, with results that benefit the public by providing useful new information about community health."

Enrollment in the study is strong, Bonner said. Invitations were sent to more than 100,000 households in late September and early October, and so far more than 5,000 have agreed to participate.

Could toxic trouble at Tonawanda Coke get worse after it closes?

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