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Local leaders seek more input into UB's Tonawanda Coke study

Municipal leaders from the towns of Tonawanda and Grand Island and the City of Tonawanda on Wednesday backed an environmental group that claims it has been shut out of a study into the historical effects of the now-shuttered Tonawanda Coke plant.

A research foundation connected to the University at Buffalo has usurped control and funding of a study ordered by U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny in 2013, the group's leaders have said. The federal judge's order required Tonawanda Coke to pay millions of dollars toward soil and health studies as part of the company's sentence for environmental crimes.

Jackie James-Creedon, who helped lead a spirited grassroots campaign against Tonawanda Coke in the early 2000s, has said her organization – Citizen Science Community Resources – is owed more than $24,000 from UB for work it performed in the community as part of the study.

“Who’s controlling the funds?" asked Philip L. Haberstro, the organization's president. "This isn’t necessarily about right or wrong science or other things. It’s about who did the work and who has control on the outcome of the process. And, the community has lost that. The community deserves control of the dollars."

The university disputes that claim. It said in a statement Wednesday that it is closely complying with Skretny’s order.

“Community members have played a major role in both the Tonawanda Coke Soil Study and the Environmental Health Study for Western New York since these two separate court-ordered studies began,” according to the UB statement. “Both studies are being carried out according to plans approved by the court, with the goal of providing people who live and work nearby with high-quality, research-based information on the impact of pollution on their neighborhoods.”

The university pointed out hundreds of local residents and school districts have participated in the soil study and had testing done on their properties and a community advisory group was established to help guide that process.

UB officials said the environmental organization has already received $100,000 for contracts it performed as part of the soil study. UB said it cannot legally pay the balance because of expenses incurred by the organization that were outside of the terms of the contract.

The proper way to collaborate with the communities is with the municipalities themselves, the municipal leaders said.

“We want to restore control back to the community,” said Grand Island Supervisor Nathan McMurray. “Control has to come back here, come back to the grassroots groups that helped lead this in the first place and come back to the towns that were directly affected by the wrongdoing and criminality of Tonawanda Coke.”

“We’re not getting answers,” said Tonawanda Mayor Rick Davis. “We’re not getting that collaboration from UB with our communities.”

Tonawanda Supervisor Joseph Emminger said UB’s process has lacked the transparency necessary to protect the community interest. He wants an independent third party appointed to oversee the process.

"For the residents’ sake, we want to make sure proper procedures and protocols are followed,” Emminger said.

McMurray proposed creating a panel where UB, the three affected communities and the organization have equal standing.

The municipal officials said they hope Skretny hears their complaints and orders UB to comply with their demands.

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