After decades of generating pollution, the former Tonawanda Coke property in the Town of Tonawanda may be one step closer to becoming a clean computer data campus.
Developer Jon M. Williams, who has a history of cleaning up and repurposing dirty industrial sites, has completed his expected purchase of the 140-acre property out of bankruptcy.
Acting through Riverview Innovation & Technology Campus Inc., Williams paid $370,000 on Thursday afternoon for back taxes, assessments and fees, capping off a process that began when he submitted the only bid for the property during a court process overseen by a federal judge. A separate court-ordered public auction on Sept. 23 failed to generate any interest, so the judge canceled it and approved Williams' previously signed purchase agreement instead.
“Our team knows the challenges of cleaning up and addressing environmental challenges created by our region’s industrial history,” Williams said. “We are ready to start the hard work of turning the page on what was to what can be at the site."
Now comes the state-supervised remediation of the site, which will be closely watched by both Tonawanda residents and environmental groups.
In particular, the Clean Air Coalition – which led the years-long effort to spotlight the damage done by Tonawanda Coke's pollution – vocally opposed the sale and the voluntary cleanup under the state Brownfield Cleanup Program. They cite fears that it could allow Tonawanda Coke and Honeywell International – which holds an $8 million mortgage on the property – to escape full responsibility and receive state tax credits as well.
The Clean Air Coalition wants the site designated as a federal Superfund instead, to ensure accountability at least by Honeywell, now that Tonawanda Coke is defunct.
But Williams insists that the investigation and cleanup would be the same no matter which program is used, and that Honeywell's responsibility doesn't change, even with the Tonawanda Coke bankruptcy. Honeywell also has stressed that it will remain a partner in the cleanup process with Williams, owner of Ontario Specialty Contracting, which specializes in industrial demolition and remediation.
"The concept that Honeywell would not stand up to its obligations is just patently untrue," Williams said. "As a corporation, they wouldn't do that. It's not the way they operate."
Williams also said that a Superfund cleanup might take longer because of significant regulatory delays that can take years, and that New York's standards are higher than the federal program, which doesn't always cover current pollution in above-ground buildings. Half of the issues at Tonawanda Coke, he said, are in surface production facilities and coke ovens that also have to be dealt with.
"It's just not true to say that the Brownfield Program has less rigor, has less environmental compliance or has less cost for cleanup than Superfund," Williams said. "It gets you to the same numbers."
Already, teams from both Williams' Riverview and from Honeywell are already onsite at Tonawanda Coke, working with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to perform some initial cleanup activities on part of the property, which the new owner termed "one of Western New York’s most challenging industrial sites" in a press release announcing the acquisition. Riverview also expects to take over the EPA's role and activities at the site by early November.
“We’re hitting the ground running,” Williams said. “We and Honeywell share the same strong commitment. Everybody wants to see the property cleaned up, and we’ve already started a process for achieving that important goal.”
Indeed, the two companies already have a working history, having previously partnered on two other local remediation and redevelopment projects – the former Buffalo Color property on Elk Street near the Buffalo River and a former 100-year-old battery plant on Highland Avenue in Niagara Falls.
In the first case, the two spent $25 million on a cleanup of the property, which is now home to the Medaille Sports Complex at Buffalo Color Park while Williams is renovating the former Schoellkopf Power House across the street into a $10 million facility with office, commercial, residential and event space.
In the second, the Niagara Falls site now holds a new $11.7 million manufacturing facility for Tulip Molded Plastics, while a separate portion of the property is being converted into a new park for the city. The cleanup came just three years after the state approached Honeywell about responsibility for the site. "That's not a corporate citizen that is irresponsible," Williams said.
In Tonawanda, Riverview will now work with the EPA and the state Department of Environmental Conservation to decide what regulatory oversight and program would be appropriate before moving quickly into a full site investigation. That would then yield plans for a "protective remedial approach," according to the press release, with the "ultimate goal" being redevelopment.
He's previously suggested the campus could be ideal for computer data centers. “Once the site has been cleaned up, it has attributes that support data and technology-focused redevelopment,” Williams said. “The investment and job-creation opportunity, in a long-term view, is very achievable.”
But Williams insists that the cleanup is the primary focus right now, with redevelopment to come later. He said the cleanup "will be grounded in technical excellence, scientific rigor, and community engagement. This process will lead to the site being put back into productive use and generating tangible economic benefits for the Town of Tonawanda and the community.”