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Who should clean up the Tonawanda Coke site—former owners or taxpayers?

Mike Desmond / WBFO News

While there is a lot of anger at the former Tonawanda Coke plant, opponents are showing some differing points of view on what to do about the environmental mess in the Town of Tonawanda.

It is a complicated situation, with Albany and Washington having pieces of the action: three different properties, different owners and a plan to develop a relatively clean site for a data center. During a meeting Wednesday night called by the Clean Air Coalition, some of the differences became clear.

Whatever happens, it is likely to cost a lot of money to clean up the main Tonawanda Coke facility, with its two embedded hazardous waste sites. Many at the meeting wanted Washington's deeper pockets to pay for the cleanup, rather than Albany, with its tax credit system. 

Ronald Malec said the site is much worse than the asbestos at the former Spaulding Fiber in the City of Tonawanda.

"The site is covered over. It doesn't migrate. It doesn't shift. It doesn't get into the water," Malec said. "The stuff that they have at Tonawanda Coke, there is such a mish-mash of chemicals that are in the soil, in the air. Some of them are water-soluble, some of them aren't."

Paul Leuchner lives on Grand Island, the occasional target of winds from the plant. He knows how badly contaminated the site is.

"[In] 1978, before it became Tonawanda Coke, there was a massive fire on that site. I was a volunteer fireman in the Grand Island Fire Company," Leuchner said. "We were called in to fight the fire there, along with a bunch of other fire companies. And when we left, we had to leave all our clothing behind because it was contaminated with toxic material."

Credit Mike Desmond / WBFO News
The Clean Air Coalition wants the former owners of Tonawanda Coke to pay for its cleanup through the federal Superfund program, instead of taxpayer money available through state brownfield tax credits.

One participant in the meeting said it is a little better than most toxic sites because the charcoal covering the property has absorbed many of the chemicals.

Jenn Pusatier, of the competing Citizen Science Community Resource Center, said the goal is getting it done.

"While I understand the Clean Air Coalition's position, CSCR and many of us in the public are looking at it from a realistic point of view," Pusatier said. "We want it cleaned up. We are going to hold the new owners and the DEC and EPA accountable, like we've done for years now. But we need to move along, we need to get a solution and we need to make it better."

The Clean Air Coalition attacked Gov. Andrew Cuomo with a skit featuring puppets and a papier mache statue of  Cuomo pulling the strings on state Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Basil Seggos on plant site decisions.

Mike Desmond is one of Western New York’s most experienced reporters, having spent nearly a half-century covering the region for newspapers, television stations and public radio. He has been with WBFO and its predecessor, WNED-AM, since 1988. As a reporter for WBFO, he has covered literally thousands of stories involving education, science, business, the environment and many other issues. Mike has been a long-time theater reviewer for a variety of publications and was formerly a part-time reporter for The New York Times.
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