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Citizens group calls on Cuomo to reject Tonawanda Coke plan

Concerned about the cleanup of the old Tonawanda Coke plant, a sprawling but contaminated site along the Niagara River, the Clean Air Coalition asked the state agency overseeing the effort to host a public hearing.

The state ignored the request, the coalition says, so the citizens group is holding its own meeting.

"The governor needs to listen to the people of Tonawanda," said Rebecca Newberry, executive director of the coalition. "Who he listens to speaks volumes as to who he values."

The coalition's public meeting will be be held at 6 p.m. Wednesday at United Steelworkers Local 135, 810 Sheridan Drive, Town of Tonawanda.

Newberry said town residents are concerned about the state brownfields cleanup planned for the former manufacturing site and who will pay for it.

For months, the coalition has pushed an alternative, a federal Superfund remediation, and argued that New York's brownfields approach will allow Tonawanda Coke's polluters to walk away.

More recently, the coalition has raised concerns about the specific brownfields plan put forward by Jon M. Williams, the Buffalo developer who bought the Town of Tonawanda site and wants to redevelop it as a computer data center.

Newberry said Williams' application to the state Department of Environmental Conversation indicates he wants to use taxpayers' money, through the use of state tax credits, to build on Superfund locations at the former plant.

She also believes the DEC is on board with the idea and called on Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has received political contributions from Honeywell, one the companies responsible for contaminants at the site, to intervene.

"They're breaking their own rules," Newberry said of the state. "And they're allowing corporations to play by their own rules."

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DEC officials said the brownfields program has a long history of seeking public input but does not provide for public hearings during the review process, which ends Wednesday.

"There are plenty of other opportunities for public participation," said Sean Mahar, the DEC's chief of staff.

Williams, who always makes a point of praising the coalition for its work at Tonawanda Coke, nevertheless disputes the argument that his use of state tax credits is improper.

He said the state came to realize that its Superfund program was leaving communities with clean but unusable sites and turned to the brownfields program as an alternative.

The difference, he said, is that the brownfields program provides for the demolition of buildings and other site improvements not previously covered by the Superfund program, and results in sites that can be redeveloped.

"We're going to spend well above what it would cost for a Superfund remediation," Williams said.

He said the site, located along the Niagara River, resembles a junkyard with its abandoned buildings and trucks and is need of a cleanup that extends beyond environmental remediation.

Williams likes to compare his brownfields plan to a homeowner straightening out his basement and said, "You have to clean out the basement before you can wash the floor."

(Derek Gee/News file photo)

With the support of town, county and state lawmakers, Williams company, Riverview Innovation and Technology Campus, is seeking designation as a brownfields project, an authorization that would lead to a multiyear plan for cleaning up and reusing the former manufacturing site.

He estimates the environmental cleanup – both testing and remediation – will take three to four years and that any delay will result in even greater contamination at the former plant.

"Every day you don't address this, it becomes worse," he said.

The coalition, which has the backing of Rep. Brian M. Higgins, believes 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.

Newberry pointed to Honeywell's contributions to Cuomo – about $50,000 over the past decade, according to state records – and their hiring of a lobbying firm as evidence of their push for a brownfields cleanup. She also called on the governor to reject Williams' application and "put the health of Western New York residents over the pockets of his political donors."

If that doesn't happen, she said polluters from across the state will learn from the mistake.

"We do think there's a domino effect," she said.

Williams' purchase of the Tonawanda Coke site was part of the company's bankruptcy 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.

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