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DEC approves Tonawanda Coke site for brownfield, Superfund cleanups

Two agreements will clear the way for cleaning up the polluted former Tonawanda Coke property to enable its redevelopment as a data center campus.

State officials will oversee the voluntary private brownfield cleanup on part of the polluted property by developer Jon Williams. Other sections of the sprawling factory site will be cleaned by Honeywell International through the state's Superfund Program, under a separate consent order announced Friday.

Some environmentalists had objected to using the Brownfield Cleanup Program for part of the site, preferring the strict Superfund for the entire property. But state officials and Williams called the brownfield program a better option to get the job done quickly, while following the same standards.

The agreement follows the state's review of the brownfield application by Williams' Riverview Innovation & Technology Campus Inc., as well as "an extended opportunity for public comment," the state said in its announcement.

“Former industrial sites don’t have to be permanent scars on our community," Williams said in an emailed statement. "They can be cleaned up, using scientific rigor and regulatory enforcement, and reborn into economic contributors for today’s economy and for years to come."

Tonawanda Coke shut down operations in October 2018 and later declared bankruptcy after the DEC revoked its air permits following inspections that found repeated violations of environmental laws and regulations. Its closure came after decades of complaints and growing pressure from the surrounding community and environmental activists.

The Clean Air Coalition led the yearslong effort to spotlight the damage done by Tonawanda Coke's pollution. It opposed the voluntary Brownfield Cleanup Program because it feared that Riverview and Honeywell could escape full responsibility while still getting state tax credits to cover some of the remediation costs.

"This decision sets a dangerous precedent, reducing the program to a loophole for legally recognized polluters to avoid their financial and environmental responsibility," said Rebecca Newberry, the coalition's executive director. "Clean Air members and the residents of Western New York deserve better than the governor's greenwashing."

Basil Seggos, commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Conservation, rejected the criticism, calling the brownfield program a better option than Superfund, which takes longer to complete and is being "gutted" at the federal level.

"What the community wants, ultimately, is a full cleanup of this site that’s protective of human health," Seggos said. "We’ve heard and considered the Superfund track, and ultimately determined that could have set the community back 20 to 30 years. It would have been the death knell of the community to have a federal Superfund designation on that site."

Williams, who owns Ontario Specialty Contracting and has a long history of cleaning up and repurposing dirty industrial sites, bought the 140-acre Town of Tonawanda property out of bankruptcy in October for $370,000 in back taxes, assessments and fees. His company must now submit a remedial investigation work plan to the state, which will be available for public review before state officials finalize it.

"Now we really start the work," Williams said in an interview, saying the next step will take about six months. "There's a significant amount of testing and site stabilization that has to go on. There's 40 years of trash accumulated on the property."

Separately, Honeywell accepted responsibility to clean up three other sections. The Charlotte, N.C.-based company will investigate and remediate those portions of the property under the Superfund program.

The entire process is expected to finish by 2024, at which point the redevelopment could begin.

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