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Tonawanda Coke to begin shutdown process next week

Michael Mroziak, WBFO

Tonawanda Coke Corporation, which was found guilty several years ago of violating the federal Clean Air Act and was appealing state effort to revoke its air permits, has submitted a plan to close its operations according to court papers made public Friday.

Tonawanda Coke, according to those documents, informed federal and state authorities Wednesday evening of its plan to close. Founded in 1917, the company produces coke, a coal-based product, which is used as a fuel and as a reducing agent in smelting iron ore. Toxic materials discharged in the making of coke include benzene.

By late Friday afternoon, as the word first broke of the company's pending closure, community activists were celebrating the announcement.

"It's an amazing day," said Rebecca Newberry of the Clean Air Coalition of Western New York. "This is coming after a decade of community organizing, community pressure, elected officials getting involved and supporting us."

Soon Newberry left Niagara Square to prepare for a news conference to celebrate the announcement, Jackie James Creedon arrived, bringing with her the modified bucket she used in 2004 to collect air samples from Tonawanda Coke's stack discharges.

"The first thing I want to say is... yay!" she cried. "The other message is that citizens and science and community activism works!"  

The federal government, in its motion filed Friday, asked a federal judge to force Tonawanda Coke Corporation to disclose its financial information while also asking the court to reconsider a stay in the company's final community service payment, estimated at $2 million.

WBFO placed calls to the law firms representing Tonawanda Coke in its federal and state cases but those calls were not returned. 

The motion also asks the judge to appoint a monitor who would oversee Tonawanda Coke's shutdown and cleanup plan. 

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, in a statement released late Friday, said it would oversee the shutdown process: "While no closure date has been provided by company, DEC will dispatch staff to oversee the safe shutdown of the TCC plant in Tonawanda, NY, and will be on-site during shutdown operations to ensure the remaining workforce and the community are protected and to secure the site.  The State Department of Labor (DOL) is dispatching a Rapid Response team to assist impacted workers with intensive job placement services and information about how to access vital benefits such as unemployment insurance and NYS Marketplace affordable health care options."

The company reportedly sought to keep their shutdown plan sealed but by late Friday afternoon the word got out of their intention to begin a shutdown process beginning next week. Jenn Pusatier, a Grand Island resident and one of numerous activists celebrating news of the shutdown, had no sympathy for the company as its desire to keep the plan secret was rejected.

"They've been trying to hide enough from the community long enough," said Jenn Pusatier, an activist from Grand Island. "If they don't like the fact that we've been out here fighting against them, and trying to do better for our community to get clean air, too bad."

Activists recalled the intimidation they say they received from the company but Creedon again pointed to the ongoing efforts of her peers, stating the stories of many people living in the vicinity of Tonawanda Coke - some of whom have since passed away, she said - inspired them to keep going.

"This is 14 years later and here we are," she said. "It works! And it takes something else beside citizen science and community organizing. It takes grit. And it takes perseverance. And it takes believing that it can happen."

Tonawanda Coke was convicted in 2013 of violating the Federal Clean Air Act and was fined millions of dollars. One of its former executives served a year in jail. The company, more recently, was accused of violating its probation and was involved in hearings this week with the state DEC to appeal a cease-and-desist order. 

More recently, the federal government filed a complaint that the company was violating terms of its probation. US District Court Judge William Skretny, explaining that the case before him was limited in scope, ruled that while Tonawanda Coke's discharges from a waste heat stack were found to be at higher-than-acceptable opacity levels, the government had failed to prove the more opaque discharges included an increase in toxic materials. 

Judge Skretny, however, noted the company's history of repeated violations and promises to fix them and warned they would not want to find themselves back before him.

"The amount of pollution that they have spewed into the area for the last 100 years… it’s not as if we didn’t try to work with them," said Rick Davis, mayor of the City of Tonawanda. "I believe if Tonawanda Coke would have been a good corporate neighbor, none of this would have been necessary."

Earlier this week, Tonawanda Coke began a scheduled appeal hearing with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, which had issued a cease-and-desist order earlier in the year. The state had intended to revoke the company's air permits. 

Other reactions late Friday included that of Congressman Brian Higgins, whose district includes the Tonawanda Coke site: "After years of bad actions by Tonawanda Coke, the community can finally breathe easier. 

"Again and again Tonawanda Coke proved themselves to be a bad corporate citizen, endangering the lives and health of its employees and neighbors.  Still again and again residents stood up and fought back, demanding better for our community.  Tonawanda Coke thought residents would tire or go away but instead their voices got louder and their argument got stronger. 

"Tonawanda Coke had no respect for the law or the community, and without any demonstration of rectification, their shutdown was inevitable."

State Senator Chris Jacobs added his own statement: "I am aware of today’s reporting that Tonawanda Coke has decided to begin the process of ceasing its operations and file shut down plans with the State of New York.  Over the long-term, this is very good news for the residents of Grand Island, Tonawanda and the entire region who for years have had to endure health concerns due to Tonawanda Coke’s chronic unwillingness or inability to comply with state and federal environmental laws.

Over the short-term, Tonawanda Coke’s closure will be disruptive, especially to those employed at the plant who will lose their jobs.  I commit to working with my partners in government and the many employers in the region, in particular those manufacturers in the River Road Corridor, to find gainful employment for each and every displaced Tonawanda Coke worker."

An estimated 100 people are employed by Tonawanda Coke. William Conrad, a councilman for the Town of Tonawanda, admitted mixed feelings knowing that people are losing their livelihoods as a result of the pending shutdown. But he won't miss the company.

"They’re talking about people being laid off as soon as Tuesday. It’s a lot of mixed emotion," Conrad said. "(The company has) been an unwelcome customer or unwelcome visitor to the town for quite some time. They’ve worn out their welcome.”

Joyce Hogenkamp, an activist working to shut down the plant, identified herself as a member of Teamsters 449 and encouraged affected Tonawanda Coke workers to call Teamsters for help finding a new position.

"They're better off being out of that polluted hellhole and working in a clean environment," Hogenkamp said. "The employees' rights have been trampled for years at that plant. It's time that they get a better-paying job, more security, benefits, and that they find something better for themselves.

"They can contact the Teamsters hall. There's jobs that are available and they can direct them in the right path."

Newberry also called for efforts to ensure that Tonawanda Coke's workers are cared for. That was one of three wishes her Clean Air Coalition forwarded late Friday. The others were for Tonawanda Coke to be made to release an emergency response plan and for state and federal governments to set aside money for remediation of the land.

"This issue, from the beginning, has been about transparency and has been about an egregious act from a corporation and its trustees and its CEO against regular working class people," Newberry said. "The fact that Tonawanda Coke attempted to keep this hidden from the public is just one more thing in a very long line of egregious violations and actions this company has taken in the community."



Michael Mroziak is an experienced, award-winning reporter whose career includes work in broadcast and print media. When he joined the WBFO news staff in April 2015, it was a return to both the radio station and to Horizons Plaza.
Nick Lippa leads our Arts & Culture Coverage, and is also the lead reporter for the station's Mental Health Initiative, profiling the struggles and triumphs of those who battle mental health issues and the related stigma that can come from it.
Ryan Zunner joined WBFO in the summer of 2018 as an intern, before working his way up to reporter the following summer.
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