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Former Tonawanda Coke marks new era with implosion of smokestacks on June 5

File Photo / WBFO News

Three towering smokestacks at the closed Tonawanda Coke plant in the Town of Tonawanda will be imploded June 5. Residents in the surrounding communities are being warned to be prepared for the big bang.
For more than a century, the three stacks have towered over a mixed residential and heavy industry section of the Town of Tonawanda. 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. The new owner, Jon Williams, now wants the stacks gone for his planned reuse of the plant.

Emily Terrana, leadership development director and environmental justice organizer for the Clean Air Coalition, said the stacks have poisoned the air for years.

"We've been told that the stacks have been abated of most of the asbestors and other hazardous materials," Terrana said, "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."

The coalition said there are potential risks in blowing down the three stacks, the highest being 275 ft. All contaminants are supposed to have been cleaned from their brick and concrete, but River Road will be closed in the area. The coalition is also warning people to be ready to clean their yards and move outdoor furniture and toys inside until after the implosion.

The coalition's Jim Jones said the plant site needs to be cleaned up more than currently planned.

"It's more than just cost. Of course, it costs money, but that cost is more of an investment," Jones said. "So the better we do it, the higher rate of return we recognize. So if we clean up the site to the highest standard, then the reuse of that site can be that much more beneficial."

Does this mark the end of an era? Yes, said coalition member Gary Schulenberg, but the legacy is problematic.

"While some might see the demise of the Tonawanda Coke chimneys as a reason to celebrate, their legacy should process, pause and ponder," said Schulenberg. "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."

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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