For a century, critics say, the Tonawanda Coke plant released toxins that spread into the air and water throughout the surrounding neighborhoods.
It should take just 15 seconds to bring down the plant’s most visible features – three towering smokestacks – in a controlled implosion shortly after sunrise Saturday.
It’ll come as a milestone in the transformation of the sprawling brownfield site.
“Our state was built on these industries. And they are perfectly suited for the industry of tomorrow,” said developer Jon M. Williams as he drove a Buffalo News reporter and photographer on a recent tour of the property. “You’ve got water. You’ve got power. You’ve got transportation. And you’ve got scale.”
Tonawanda Coke, once an economic engine in the Town of Tonawanda, shut down in 2018 under pressure from community activists and government regulators.
Williams bought the property with plans to revive the 125-acre industrial wasteland as a campus for data centers.
He said his firm has made considerable progress in remediating the property in partnership with Honeywell International: clearing mountains of debris, tearing down contaminated structures and conducting soil and water tests that will guide the remaining cleanup.
Williams, whose Ontario Specialty Contracting has redeveloped several other area brownfield sites, said he has spent $13 million to date at Tonawanda Coke with far more to come.
Brownfield tax credits will cover much of the cleanup cost, a point of frustration for some environmental advocates.
They welcome overturning Tonawanda Coke’s legacy of pollution but say they want tough scrutiny of the site work and public input into what becomes of the prime riverfront property.
“I just think the community residents are sometimes given a back seat to the Jon Williams and the Honeywell people who have a lot of money,” said Maria Tisby, a town resident and member of the Clean Air Coalition of Western New York. “It’s the David and Goliath story.”
History of pollution
The plant at 3875 River Road, along the Tonawanda waterfront, began operations in 1917.
Coal was transported by rail to the plant, where it was crushed and heated in ovens without air to create coke – a fuel used in blast furnaces at steel mills.
The process can produce benzene, coal tar and other toxic byproducts.
Environmental concerns were barely an afterthought early on, but that changed in recent years, when residents, community groups, environmental regulators and federal prosecutors pressed Tonawanda Coke to clean up its act.
“My hope is that a plant like this is really a thing of the past,” Basil Seggos, commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Conservation, said in an interview.
Tonawanda Coke Corp. was convicted of criminal wrongdoing in federal court, where it was fined nearly $25 million.
The company declared bankruptcy and the plant shut down in October 2018. Williams acquired it at auction one year later through his Riverview Innovation & Technology Campus.
“Between this and Huntley, this whole area is going to be so different in five or 10 years,” Tonawanda Supervisor Joseph Emminger said, referring to the defunct NRG Energy power plant.
Brownfield cleanup debate
Williams and Ontario Specialty Contracting are remediating an 86-acre portion of the property through a voluntary private brownfield cleanup overseen by the DEC.
Honeywell is responsible for cleaning three other parcels closer to the Niagara River, with a combined size of 40 acres, through the state’s Superfund Program, though Williams said he is carrying out this cleanup as well. A Honeywell predecessor company owned and operated the coke-manufacturing site until 1977.
Williams and town and state officials say the brownfield program allows for a thorough and efficient remediation of the property.
Community activists had asked the state to place the entire property within the Superfund program because, they contend, it would hold the cleanup to a consistently higher standard.
Tisby and other critics say the state brownfield program lets polluters off the hook because the developer can receive tax credits to pay for the cost of the cleanup.
Emily Terrana, environmental justice coordinator for the Clean Air Coalition, said she’s glad the DEC has set up a working group that meets monthly and ensures the sharing of information with numerous project stakeholders.
“If they are lying, or fudging numbers, we would know,” Terrana said.
Cleanup progress touted
Williams touts concrete progress his crews have made on the site over the past 11 months.
The company said it has:
- Removed 4,000 tons of waste, materials containing asbestos and leftover scrap from the site;
- Emptied, cleaned, demolished and shipped offsite for disposal or recycling 13 above-ground storage tanks;
- Collected and taken away more than 2,000 drums and containers of chemicals;
- Torn down a number of the 100 structures of varying sizes on the site, including a house Williams dubbed “the Munsters mansion”;
- Taken more than 550 soil, groundwater, surface water and sediment samples.
Williams and John Black, president of Inventum Engineering, said the site is covered by 5 feet of fill on top of 50 feet of dense clay, with bedrock underneath. They said they believe, based on initial testing, that any contamination on-site primarily is limited to the top layer of fill.
“So, from a community exposure standpoint, we’re pretty confident that almost everything is contained on-site,” Williams said.
The pair refer to the plant’s main drag, where demolition continues and where the smell of coal tar lingers, as “Broadway.”
On the recent visit an excavator was slowly ripping apart a track for off-loading coal and a piece of equipment similar to a ski-resort snow machine spread atomized water to keep dust from circulating.
What remained included everything from piles of rubber conveyor belts to several abandoned golf carts parked in weeds.
“You feel like you’re in a zombie apocalypse movie,” Williams said.
Seggos said it’s a challenging cleanup but comparable to others underway across the state.
“I have very high confidence that the work that’s being done there is being done under strict scrutiny from my team and with public involvement,” said Seggos, who visited the site this year.
Tonawanda Coke isn’t Williams’ only brownfield cleanup project.
Williams and Honeywell spent $25 million on the former Buffalo Color property on Elk Street, near the Buffalo River, now home to a Medaille College sports complex. Across the street from that, Williams’ firm renovated the former Schoellkopf Power House into a venue with office, commercial, residential and event space at a cost previously estimated at $10 million.
The two companies also collaborated to clean up a 100-year-old battery plant on Highland Avenue in Niagara Falls, now home to a nearly $12 million manufacturing facility for Tulip Molded Plastics.
Williams also owns the former American Axle & Manufacturing plant on East Delavan Avenue in Buffalo, which has gone through a considerable redevelopment process.
“He’s not running a charity. He’s a businessman, and I understand that,” Terrana said.
She said he’s moved too slowly to remediate the American Axle site, now home home to several tenants, including Williams-led Viridi Parente Inc., a company that makes lithium-ion battery packs and electric drive systems for heavy construction equipment.
Williams has won praise for his brownfield revival projects and for the promise of his green-tech company.
One dissenting view came in a report from LittleSis, the watchdog website backed by the Public Accountability Initiative, which questioned how environmentally friendly Williams’ companies are, his extensive campaign contributions and his coziness with elected officials.
“Williams is not the environmental champion that his public image portrays,” Rob Galbraith wrote in the 2019 analysis.
Tonawanda Coke's future
Soil and water samples taken at the Tonawanda Coke site will be reviewed by the DEC in the coming months and used to guide the future, subsurface cleanup, Williams said.
He hopes to preserve and reuse one structure on the site, an original building that may have served as a warehouse or maintenance facility.
“Depending on what the sampling shows, we’re going to try to save this,” Williams said.
He said he couldn’t estimate the cost of the full remediation and redevelopment but he expects to complete the work in phases through 2025, a timeline that includes the brownfield and Superfund parcels.
Williams declined to elaborate on what exactly he plans to build, beyond saying the high-capacity power lines and other infrastructure connections to the site make it ideal for a cluster of data centers.
Asked whether he envisions setting up a bitcoin-mining operation – such facilities house computers that require extensive energy to process cryptocurrency transactions – he said he doubted it.
Williams said he hopes to create public access on the Superfund portion of the site, where he would build a mixed-use development along the riverfront.
“These sites can’t just get fenced off because they’re in the middle of our communities,” Williams said. “We’ve got to fix these sites. These sites have to be productive assets.”
But first, the stacks will come down.
The two boiler house stacks and the waste heat stack were constructed in 1917 and modified through the 1980s. They range in height from 230 feet to 275 feet.
Controlled Demolition Inc. crews will set charges at their bases to implode them at 6 a.m.
“Once these stacks are down, we can’t let our guard down," Terrana said. "There is so much more work to be done.”