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Auction will determine fate of Tonawanda Coke property — and cleanup

For years, neighbors looked at the Tonawanda Coke plant and saw a polluter, a company carelessly and illegally spewing benzene into the air.

In about three weeks, the future of that prime piece of real estate, a sprawling 140-acre site along the Niagara River, should become a lot clearer.

A public auction of the Town of Tonawanda property is scheduled for Sept. 23.

Who bids and how much they bid will determine if the waterfront site is cleaned up and redeveloped by Ontario Specialty Contracting of Buffalo or someone else.

Even more important, perhaps, it may also decide what type of cleanup is done.

"An auction does not absolve a polluter," said Rebecca Newberry, executive director of the Clean Air Coalition. "We have to remain grounded in the fact that there is a company responsible for damaging that land."

Newberry thinks the auction could lead to a state brownfields cleanup that would allow Honeywell, which holds an $8 million mortgage on the property, to avoid paying for a remediation of the abandoned site.

"They should not be allowed to walk away," she said.

The auction, approved by the judge overseeing Tonawanda Coke's bankruptcy case, is part of the company's plan for ending its manufacturing operations and liquidating its assets. 

The company, convicted of criminal wrongdoing at a federal court trial and fined $25 million, shut down last year, and the site is in the hands of state and federal environmental officials.

“Honeywell, like other companies with long manufacturing histories, has cleaned up sites under different government programs, and we will fulfill our obligations at the Tonawanda Coke site in cooperation with the environmental agencies," company spokeswoman Victoria Streitfeld said in a statement.

Streitfeld said the company is working on cleanup activities along the riverside portion of the property and, with the help of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the state Department Environmental Conservation, trying to determine what needs to be done at the rest of the site. 

Waiting in the wings is developer Jon M. Williams of Ontario Specialty Contracting. Williams signed a purchase agreement with Honeywell and Tonawanda Coke but the contract is contingent on the outcome of this month's public auction.

If a higher bid is made, Williams could lose the right to buy and redevelop the site as a computer data center. He said the Tonawanda site "checks all the boxes" for a major data center and interest in the property is high.

A higher bid would also mean his use of the state brownfields program might be dead. He thinks the brownfields strategy would allow for a quicker, more efficient remediation.

"We want these sites cleaned up and put back into use," Williams said last week.

Williams said he understands the community is distrustful of government because of what happened at Tonawanda Coke, but he insists a federal Superfund cleanup, the only alternative to a brownfields strategy, would result in delays in remediating the property.

He also claims the cleanup, regardless of whether it's the state or feds who oversee it, will remain the same.

"The task doesn't change because of the oversight authority," he said.

Williams and Honeywell seem reluctant to pick a public fight with the Clean Air Coalition, the group most responsible for turning the spotlight on Tonawanda Coke.

During a trial in 2013, more than 30 witnesses testified about toxic emissions and improper hazardous waste disposal at the plant. A jury found the company guilty of criminal charges and the judge in the case levied a $25 million fine, much of it for a public health study into the effects of Tonawanda Coke's emissions.

Newberry said her members are opposed to a brownfields cleanup and instead want Honeywell held accountable.

"They are legally liable for that waste, and they know they are," she said.

Honeywell insists its goal is the best and quickest remediation possible and said it would remain an active partner with Ontario Specialty even after the brownfields designation is approved by the state.

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