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Clean Air Coalition warns residents of possible pollution from Tonawanda Coke smokestack demolition

WGRZ.com photo

The Clean Air Coalition is warning residents around the old Tonawanda Coke plant to be prepared, just in case something goes wrong when three-towering smokestacks at the plant are leveled on June 5.

For generations, they spewed dirty air into the skies high above, mostly at a time when it was a jobs issue. As concern about the environment rose, the chemicals coming out of the stacks became much more of a concern. Court cases and bankruptcy eventually forced a shutdown.

“While some might see the demise of the Tonawanda Coke chimneys as a reason to celebrate, their legacy should process, pause and ponder. The neighborhoods in the area know it's the site of sickness, suffering and death during it's over 100 years of existence. It also reflects corporate malfeasance and government irresponsibility,’ says coalition member Gary Schulenberg.

In 2014, the plant became the only company in U.S. history to be found guilty of 14 criminal violations of the Clean Air Act.

The Coalition was part of the citizens group that monitored emissions at those stack, coordinating a range of neighborhood testing and other efforts that led to the plant’s closure in October 2017.

The 129-acre site sits along River Road and the Niagara River.  The NYS Department of Environmental Conservation says the nearest residences are approx.. .25 miles south of the site, but the coalition is warning people to be ready to clean their yards and move outdoor furniture and toys inside until after the stacks are down, just in case.

“We've been told that the stacks have been abated of most of the asbestos and other hazardous materials and we also know that these stacks have been in operation for over a century and have emitted tons of hazardous material into our air, such as benzene, heavy metals, coal soot and other things. So, it's not just going to be regular construction debris,” says Emily Terrana , environmental justice organizer for the Clean Air Coalition.

New owner and developer Jon Williams decided to remove the stacks because his re-use plan doesn't require them.   There have been extensive precautions, from removing contamination from the stacks to planning to close River Road near the plant for the blasts.

A portion of the site is a state superfund site, which allows government to pay for the cleanup first and bill polluters later, rather than wait for any court settlement.

Cleanup of the site has been supervised by the US Environmental Protection Agency and removal of material from the soil continues. Testing of the soil, sediment and groundwater continues with results expected later this year.

More than 2,000 drums and containers of chemicals have been removed from the site, according to a statement from William’s Riverview Innovation and Technology Campus.

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.