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As Tonawanda Coke shutdown starts, site is suggested for future football stadium

WBFO file photo

The shutdown of Tonawanda Coke is already underway, ahead of the originally anticipated start date of Tuesday. As the ovens are purged and coke is removed from the site, questions are already being raised about what might become of the property in the future. The Town of Tonawanda Supervisor offered an idea for a possible future use - a new stadium for the Buffalo Bills.

The coke ovens are being purged and, officials say, there may be visible flames viewed from nearby neighborhoods. While neighbors are assured this is part of the purging process, emergency responders will be on standby in the event of an extraordinary incident.

"Now we can concentrate on the cleanup of the site and, working with the Department of Labor and the unions in the area, find jobs for those people," said Town of Tonawanda Supervisor Joseph Emminger. "Hopefully we'll be able to get them taken care of."

Emminger could not set a timeline for when cleanup will be completed on the Tonawanda Coke site. He told reporters Monday he was informed by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation that Tonawanda Coke was on its Superfund list and, thus, is a high priority.

The DEC, in a written statement, offered the following: "DEC’s first priority is to ensure a safe shutdown of this facility. Once complete, DEC will launch a thorough investigation of contamination at the site and will be better able to estimate cleanup costs following that investigation. Both Tonawanda Coke-owned properties are under State Superfund orders and in various stages of remedial investigations. An Interim Remedial cleanup measure removing a significant amount of contamination has already been completed on site 108 adjacent to the Niagara River. 

"DEC is on-site closely monitoring every aspect of the shutdown to ensure that workers, the community, and the environment are protected.  Flaring may be visible today but exact timing is difficult to predict."

Emminger repeated his statement that although they lose a business with the shutdown of Tonawanda Coke, it will not be as significant an economic impact on his town and the Ken-Ton School District as was the Huntley power plant shutdown. 

"When the Huntley plant closed, it was $2 million in lost revenue to the town alone," he said. "To the town, Tonawanda Coke pays only $70,000."

Tonawanda Coke issued a statement Monday blaming the financial obligations of its criminal sentence and other unforeseen expenses for the necessity to close. It also blamed government agencies for creating hardships and suggested workers learned of the closing not from company officials but through news reports.

Their statement reads: "Sadly, largely due to the financial obligations of its criminal sentence, significant and unanticipated expenses, the loss of a funding source, and the multiple and coordinated enforcement actions brought by various government agencies, Tonawanda Coke cannot continue operations.  The Company began considering this decision last week and immediately started to plan an orderly and safe shutdown process in direct consultation with DEC and EPA.  Despite our understanding that this information would be kept confidential, it was not, causing our workers to learn about the shutdown through the media.  This outcome is truly unfortunate.  Confidentiality was necessary to ensure the safety of Tonawanda Coke’s workers and the community, as shutting down a coke battery can be a complex and dangerous activity which can only be safely accomplished through careful, detailed planning, and utilization of experienced personnel.  It was essential that we communicate with our workers to ensure they understood the situation and would continue to operate the battery safely.  Despite the disappointing change in circumstances, we are doing our best to ensure a safe and orderly shutdown.  We extend a debt of gratitude to all our workers, and sincerely apologize that circumstances beyond our control brought about this untimely end to the Company’s existence."

Among the financial problems that spelled doom for the company was a final $2 million payment owed as part of their sentence in 2014 for violating the Clean Air Act. It was a payment the company said it could not make and sought to delay. State Senator Chris Jacobs responded to Tonawanda Coke's statement by saying the blame is entirely on the company.

"They can say folks were picking on them. This was an anticipated payment they knew was coming for several years," Jacobs said. "It seems kind of a coincidence that they're shutting down and not able to do that."

Jacobs suggested the cleanup of the Tonawanda Coke site might serve to improve the property value of the former Huntley site, with no more next-door neighbor polluting the air.

The Town of Tonawanda plans to repurpose the land but not for residential development. Emminger said likely possibilities include business or industrial parks but he then told reporters, and insisted he is serious, that the site could be considered as a future location for a football stadium for the Buffalo Bills.

"I throw that out there for future consideration at this point," he said. "I'm being serious. Why not? It's a 150-acre site. It has infrastructure right there. It has Thruway exits close to Canada. Everything is right there on the site."

Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz has, on repeated occasions recently, dismissed the notion that the Bills will move out of their current Orchard Park campus any time in the near future. While announcing his proposed 2019 Erie County budget last Friday, he made note of Bills owners Terry and Kim Pegula and their $18 million investment to renovate club seating at New Era Field. He also pointed out their $18 million investment into the team's training facility.

"They're doing these big ticket, large projects. They're not asking for a single cent from Erie County and I'm thankful for that," Poloncarz said.

"When it comes to the Pegulas' investment, I think people should realize they're very wise business people. They're not going to be investing $36 million over two years for a facility they plan to leave in a couple."

While public officials sympathize with the dozens of workers displaced by the closing, there was little to no sympathy for the company. Sheridan Park Fire District Chief James Chatham recalled the night in early September when fire companies responding to a call on the Tonawanda Coke grounds were not permitted on the premises. 

"Twenty four years I've been a firefighter, I've been there several times. It progressively got crazier, for a lack of a better term," he said. 

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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