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Developer is new owner of Tonawanda Coke site after auction draws no interest

Developer Jon M. Williams is the new owner of the former Tonawanda Coke site.

A public auction of the 140-acre riverfront parcel was canceled Monday for lack of interest, and a federal bankruptcy judge followed suit by approving Williams' purchase of the contaminated plant.

Williams, who had a sales agreement to buy the property before the auction, wants to redevelop the site as a computer data center and, with the support of town, county and state lawmakers, is seeking a state brownfields designation as part of his remediation plans.

"We are prepared to take over responsibility for maintaining the site," said Gregory P. Photiadis, a lawyer for Williams, in court Monday.

The Clean Air Coalition, a community group with a long history of monitoring Tonawanda Coke, opposes a brownfields cleanup and is advocating for a federal Superfund remediation.

The group, which has the backing of Rep. Brian M. Higgins, says that a brownfields cleanup will allow Honeywell, which is responsible for some of the contaminants on site and has an $8 million mortgage on the property, to receive substantial financial relief through the use of state tax credits.

"What we saw today was posturing by three corporations eager to avoid liability," said Rebecca Newberry, executive director of the coalition.

The Tonawanda Coke facility on River Road shut down for good in October. (Derek Gee/News file photo)

Newberry said Williams' brownfields approach will allow his company, Honeywell and Tonawanda Coke to avoid some of their financial liability.

"We want the polluters to clean up their mess," she said.

Williams said the notion that a brownfields remediation would allow Honeywell to walk away without fulfilling its obligations is off base.

"Honeywell's obligations don't change depending on the type of program used at the site," he said Monday.

When asked about the Clean Air Coalition's opposition, Williams said he understands the group's position but think it's misplaced. He also suggested a Superfund cleanup might fall short of remediating the entire site.

"Everybody wants the same outcome," he said. "Frankly, the state program is more comprehensive than the federal program."

James C. Thoman, a lawyer for Tonawanda Coke, said the purchase agreement calls for Williams and his company, Riverview Innovation and Technology Campus, to pay the overdue property taxes on the site and assume liability for the cleanup.

Aside from the property taxes, no other cash was exchanged, he said.

In court, Thoman detailed a national marketing strategy for the property, including social media and an ad in the Wall Street Journal, and yet there were no competing bids for the site.

The canceled auction, scheduled for Monday in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Buffalo, was part of the company's plan for ending its manufacturing operations and liquidating its assets. 

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

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