When a federal judge ordered polluting manufacturer Tonawanda Coke to shell out $13 million to fund community health and soil studies and open a $3 million Environmental Health Center in 2014, citizen activists were thrilled.
They thought they'd be partners with the University at Buffalo, which would handle the research, and that the SUNY Research Foundation would be stewards of that money.
That goodwill is long gone.
Instead, activists with Citizen Science Community Researchers and government officials came before the Erie County Legislature on Thursday to lambaste the university and its researchers for breaking trust with neighborhood residents and ignoring community requests for more information. They also accused UB of using the millions awarded by U.S. District Judge William Skretny without transparency or accountability.
"They turned their backs on us," said Jackie James-Creedon, director of Citizen Science Community Resources.
UB officials did not attend the Legislature's committee hearing. But in a lengthy statement, the University at Buffalo said claims that the university isn't working with residents are untrue.
"The University at Buffalo is firmly committed to investigating how pollution and other factors have affected the health of citizens who live and work near the former Tonawanda Coke site," the statement read. "Guided by scientific expertise and aided by strong community involvement, UB researchers are conducting a rigorous and unbiased epidemiological study. The goal is to provide members of the community and policymakers with new information to make long-term decisions that improve public health and reduce the risk of disease."
The statement also denied that the university is "running roughshod" over residents, pointing to a 10-year health study that is being conducted, as well as a soil study.
"Nearly 13,000 citizens have signed up to participate in the health study," the statement said. "The university is working diligently with these stakeholders and their respective communities to gain important new knowledge about their collective health. In the future, insights from the study could help to drive individual health decisions, public health policy and help prevent disease."
In March, Judge Skretny ruled that the University at Buffalo is meeting the requirements of a separate, court-authorized study into soil contamination. He also said UB's financial expenditures are consistent with what the court ordered.
Local activists said they encouraged residents to participate in those studies, but they can't afford to wait another six years for the health study to be completed and for people to get help and answers.
Tonawanda Coke shut down in October 2018.
Town of Tonawanda Supervisor Joseph Emminger lent his voice in support of the residents, saying that the researchers' lack of communication and unresponsiveness is deeply troubling.
"They have abandoned all fiscal oversight," he said. "They have the money. They’ll hold the money, and they’ll decide where it goes."
UB operated an environmental health education center in Tonawanda from October 2016 to July 2018. When the lease expired, the community advisory committee suggested that UB delay reopening the education center until findings from the study are available, UB said. In the interim, alternatives for information will include a website with environmental health resources, a newsletter, seasonal fact sheets for healthy living, and outreach at public events.
Citizen Science Community Researchers have kept a bare-bones health education center operating with a small county grant.
"We trusted the university to work in partnership with us, and that failed," said Grand Island resident Jenn Jablon Pusatier.