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DEC announces deals for cleanup of Tonawanda Coke site

WBFO file photo

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation says it has reached agreements with two companies to clean up the former Tonawanda Coke site. Those companies will conduct their respective cleanups through the state's brownfield and superfund programs.

The DEC on Friday announced Riverview Innovation & Technology's application for the state's Brownfield Cleanup Program had been accepted and that it would next craft a plan for the cleanup of its portion of the polluted grounds. Honeywell International, meanwhile, will clean up its portion of the site under the State Superfund.

"They're going to be held to a very strict cleanup standard. Both the brownfields law as well as the Superfund law, and have identical cleanup standards," said DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos. "We're talking about getting the contamination out of the ground, of preventing any migration pathways into the river, taking out some of that legacy pollution, and really importantly getting those buildings down."

Completion, according to Seggos, is expected by 2024.

Last year, property developer Jon Williams acquired the former Tonawanda Coke site through a bankruptcy auction and intends to redevelop the site as a data center. Tonawanda Coke closed in October 2018, after being found in violation of environmental laws and losing its state air permits.

Environmental groups, for decades, battled to hold Tonawanda Coke accountable. Rebecca Newberry, executive director of the Clean Air Coalition, says Friday's deals set a concerning precedent that may allow future polluters to avoid covering the full cost of cleaning up their past deeds.

"We believe this is a warping of the purpose of the brownfield tax credit program," Newberry said. "This decision sets a dangerous precedent and reduces the program to a loophole for legally recognized polluters to avoid their financial and environmental responsibility."

Newberry told WBFO Honeywell owned the company which later became Tonawanda Coke and, as a Fortune 500 company, can certainly afford to cover the cost of the full cleanup.

"The brownfield program's intention was a tax credit program. We have a very strong enforceable program under New York State superfund, which you the state has enacted in literally just different smaller portions of the same site. Why not apply it to the whole site and let make the polluter pay?" she said. "We think that we're what we're asking for something very realistic. And the fact that the governor is siding with a large multinational company over living, breathing and working people here in Western New York is egregious."

Seggos insists Honeywell, and Riverview, are assuming significant responsibilities for cleanup. State officials also say the brownfield option will get the site cleaned sooner.

"The Superfund program that Honeywell is under there, we have determined that they are liable for that portion of property so they will be cleaning up that portion of property on their own dime," he said. "The same is true with the Riverview portion. They will be cleaning up the property on their own dime. If they are successful and ultimately meet all of our cleanup standards, and get the site prepared for redevelopment, then they're eligible for tax credits."

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.
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