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The Editorial Board

Brownfield, Superfund efforts are win-win at Tonawanda Coke

The state Department of Environmental Conservation made the right call on the Tonawanda Coke property. A private brownfield cleanup plus a parallel state Superfund remediation will get the toxin-filled land cleaned to the highest standard while restoring part of the property to be put back into productive use. That is a win-win.

The DEC this month announced a consent decree with Honeywell International, a former owner of the plant on River Road in the Town of Tonawanda. Officials said that Honeywell takes responsibility for contaminants at the Superfund site – three parcels of land on the 140-acre property. Honeywell will perform a full investigation and remediation, which the company will pay for.

Jon M. Williams owns the full property, which he purchased at auction last fall when Tonawanda Coke was liquidated. The DEC last week announced Williams’ company, Riverview Innovation and Technology Campus, is approved for a brownfield cleanup on a separate portion of land, outside the Superfund area. Williams pays for that cleanup and can get reimbursed for a portion of the funds through brownfield tax credits.

A citizens’ group that has done laudable work bringing Tonawanda Coke’s environmental wrongdoing to light, Clean Air Coalition, opposed a brownfield cleanup for any part of the property, preferring a federal Superfund program. The coalition has expressed disdain for the fact that Williams will get a tax incentive as part of the state Brownfield Cleanup Program. The tax credits, for which the developer may apply only after the DEC gives him a certificate saying the cleanup is completed, exist as an incentive for developers to fund remediation of polluted sites. Williams must fund the entire cleanup process himself; the tax credits will help him recoup some of the costs.

As with incentives granted to developers for adaptive reuse of old buildings, the tax credits have their critics, but they result in projects to transform properties that otherwise may never happen.

The federal Superfund program runs through the Environmental Protection Agency. President Trump this month proposed slashing the Superfund program, and cutting 26% out of the EPA’s budget. That was one factor in the DEC’s decision to make use of the state Superfund for Tonawanda Coke.

DEC officials and Williams say the brownfield project and Superfund cleanup will work side by side, with the same regulations and enforcement efforts.

Williams has worked with Honeywell before on remediation projects, transforming the former Buffalo Color property into a sports complex and a one-time battery plant in Niagara Falls into a plastics manufacturing factory and a town park.

Honeywell released a statement saying it will work in cooperation with Williams. Investigations on the properties will be done at the same time and “data collected for both programs will be used by DEC and both parties,” the company said.

We have said in this space before that the brownfield cleanup makes sense. Brownfield projects generally have faster turnaround times and produce similar results. A Honeywell executive told The News last year that the site could be cleaned up and reoccupied within five years under the brownfield program.

Part of the DEC’s job is to account for both environmental protections and economic concerns. Williams wants to develop the brownfields site into a campus for computer data centers. The town will benefit when a new business joins the tax rolls and begins populating its payroll.

The brownfield program oversaw the cleanup of 128 acres of the General Motors Components plant in Lockport, completed in 2016, and 31 acres once occupied by Donner Hanna Coke and Republic Steel, turning both into productive use for manufacturing.

There are no free passes being handed out. Both the DEC and the EPA will remain involved, ensuring a site that is cleaned and ready to be repurposed. The sooner the better.

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