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Citizen Science, towns tell UB they want more say in Tonawanda Coke Soil Study

Nick Lippa

Citizen groups who fought Tonawanda Coke say they are being cut out of UB led community projects and fine money. Citizen Science Community Resources along with local officials are asking a judge to require UB to collaborate with the involved municipalities.

A chasm has grown over the past year between local municipalities and UB regarding the process involved with the Tonawanda Coke Soil Study.

The study, which started in 2017, was ordered by a federal judge after Tonawanda Coke was convicted of violating the Clean Air Act and Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.

While UB says they have “met with community members and leaders on multiple occasions to discuss and solicit feedback about the studies,” leaders like City of Tonawanda Mayor Rick Davis said they are not doing enough to incorporate the community.  

“It’s very disheartening that you have one agency that has taken these monies and has gone off on their own tangent,” Davis said. “We have questions at our level that we want answered that we want answers to. We’re not getting that collaboration from UB with our communities that we and CSCR have fought so hard.”

Davis said what started as a healthy collaboration tackling Tonawanda Coke has now dwindled to a one-sided effort.

“Between then and now, what has been a community collaboration has turned into, as I quote UB, a dictatorship,” said Davis.

There are a few disagreements at hand that need to be addressed, starting with whether an independent third party review is needed for the study’s findings.

UB professor Joseph Gardella Jr. is leading the study and released a statement saying they’ve already done this.

“All procedures, methods and Phase 1 results have been reviewed by scientists or engineers at the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. This constitutes a third-party review,” Gardella said.

But local officials are not convinced. Tonawanda Town Supervisor Joseph Emminger said nobody has seen the report and that is the genesis of the problem.

“All three of us (Nate McMurray, Rick Davis, and Joeseph Emminger) signed a letter a year and a half ago requesting UB send its report out to an independent third party to review the findings. We sent out the Town of Tonawanda study that they gave us out to an independent third party to have them review it and they found a lot of… questions that nobody could answer,” said Emminger. “So there has to be an in depth third party analysis of the work that’s been done to date so we know what they’ve been doing is following along with everything. Nobody has seen the report. Nobody has seen the study. That’s concerning to us.”

Emminger said when he met with Gidella from UB in January 2018 they didn’t come to an agreement on a third party that would look at it.

“He asked for my permission to use the Town of Tonawanda samples that they took from municipal owned properties,” said Emminger. “Not resident properties, from the 40-50 samples that they took from the Town of Tonawanda. I did not give that permission and to this date I have still not given that permission to them to use the results from those findings.”

And Emminger doesn’t plan to release the results until they can all agree on an independent third party. He said the results UB have presented in turn are not the total result because they are missing a large portion of the sample that they took.

“Am I concerned about the results that they’ve found on the Town of Tonawanda? No. I’m not concerned about the results. But I don’t think they tell the entire picture and they use criteria that in my opinion, could be alarming to residents.”

Grand Island Supervisor Nate McMurray didn’t have as much problem with the way the study was carried out.

“As scientific researchers, I’m not here to undermine or attack their abilities as researches,” McMurray said.

Through this, Gardella maintains they are open to meeting with public officials.

“I have met in person with Nate McMurray, Joseph Emminger and Rick Davis. Most recently, I met with these officials or their representatives to answer questions, solicit feedback and share early findings from Phase I of the soil study prior to a January 2019 public meeting in which these early findings were shared,” Gardella said.

“Our study team has also been in contact with elected officials or their representatives on various other occasions, and we are happy to answer questions, share updates and receive feedback from elected officials or community members at any time. We have worked hard to be both transparent and responsive to questions from elected officials and the community.”

Another issue each side can’t seem to agree on is money. The CSCR says they are owed money. UB calls them “non-project expenses.”

"The soil study work performed by Citizen Science Community Resources (CSCR) was covered by a contract with the Research Foundation for the State University of New York. The Research Foundation has the fiscal responsibility to ensure that only documented expenses, directly related to the project’s scope of work, are reimbursed with Tonawanda Coke settlement funds."

"CSCR has received more than $100,000 for its work on the soil study. The Research Foundation has reviewed the most recent invoices submitted by CSCR containing non-project expenses, and it has notified CSCR that these expenses cannot be paid as they are outside of the terms of the contract."

“They have sent us numerous requests for information and we’ve sent them back documentation,” said CSCR spokesperson Philip Haberstro. “We have an accounting person who does those things for us and the only time I’ve really noticed that there was possibly some room for improvement was a little bit of the documentation on some of the activities that we were involved in could have been stronger. But we came back with more information when it was requested and now we’re at a position where they owe us $25,000 and I don’t know how if ever we are going to see that.”

Haberstro said the current feeling in the community is that they are not in control of something they fought for 16 years.

He would like to create a commission to oversee and provide the community with more input and oversight. They may have to go to U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny, who ruled on the Tonawanda Coke case, to resolve the matter.

“There’s community input for an education center. There’s community input for a different approach to soil sampling testing that we’ve done through surveying,” said Haberstro. “Jackie James-Creedon and the team that has worked so hard for all these years and the community officials that have supported them do deserve to have control of how these funds are invested.”

And control is something the community clearly feels they have little to none of at the moment.

“We’re asking the judge to give it back to the community. That’s who did the fight. Not the UB foundation,” Haberstro said. “There are good people (at UB). I work with them all the time in other different health projects in the community. But this is about benefiting the citizens of these three communities. So we need to be very clear. Who is controlling the funds is really the issue.”

Haberstro added they may have difficulty fulfilling parts of the contract without the proper funding.

“So what comes first? The funds or the work?” he said.

Grand Island Supervisor Nate McMurray said citizen science has been the canary in the coal mine.

“Control cannot be done by some outside foundation,” said McMurray. “Control has to come back here. Come back to the grassroots groups that helped lead this in the first place. And come back to the towns that were directly affected by the wrongdoing and criminality of Tonawanda Coke.”

But McMurray was quick to say he thinks UB is doing their best to do a good job. The problem is it seems to be unilateral.

“As the process has gone along, we have been involved less and less and less. And Citizen Science has been almost completely removed from the process,” he said.

McMurray posed another question: Should all the money be attributed to this study alone?

“I think that we have to fund the groups that started this in the first place and make sure that they’re fully funded so they can help us fight future polluters and help us understand how this current polluter has affected our society and our three towns,” he said.

McMurray recognizes the judge gave the money to UB in the first place, but said that process also told them they would be involved and that citizen science would be involved.

“If necessary, we’re going to have to go back to the court together and say we need to look at this again to make sure that no one is left out. Especially the people that started this in the first place all those years ago,” he said.

“Supervisor how many people do you represent in the Town of Tonawanda?” McMurray asked. “73,000,” Emminger replied.

“So the supervisor says, ‘Hey I have concerns about this study.’ And (Gardella) says, ‘Too bad. This is the way we are going to do it.’ That’s the problem. (Emminger) represents 73,000 people. The people that are affected by this pollution,” McMurray said. “We need to figure out a way where we can communicate better and if we need a third party to help us do that and we need a board to help us do that, we need to get there. Because it’s too important not to fight.”

One thing is certain at the moment. There’s a clear disconnect when it comes to what role the community should play in these studies moving forward.

“And this is just a soil study. It’s only going to get worse with the health study that’s going to be ongoing and for a longer period of time,” said Davis.

UB released the following statement regarding the Environmental Health of Western New York:

"The Environmental Health Study for Western New York is a court-ordered study that investigates over 10 years or more how emissions from the Tonawanda Coke plant and other sources may have affected — and may continue to affect — the health of surrounding communities. CSCR is not part of that study."

"The study will empower the local communities by helping residents of the City of Tonawanda, the Town of Tonawanda and Grand Island gain important new knowledge about their collective health. The study will give residents an increased understanding of how prevalent various diseases are in their communities, and how these diseases may be linked to pollutants found in coke oven emissions."

"The research will also shed light on how lifestyle factors like diet and exercise affect a person’s risk of developing disease following exposure to pollutants. Such information can inform decision-making, helping residents and community leaders decide how to focus public health policies, as well as community-driven initiatives aimed at improving community health through education, awareness and clinical care. In the future, insights from the study could help to prevent disease in these and other communities."

It may only be a matter of time until all parties meet together in front of a judge.

Nick Lippa leads our Arts & Culture Coverage, and is also the lead reporter for the station's Mental Health Initiative, profiling the struggles and triumphs of those who battle mental health issues and the related stigma that can come from it.
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