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Town of Grand Island: Residents urged to fight Tonawanda Coke

Sat, Jul 28th 2018 07:00 am
Smoke billows from the stacks at Tonawanda Coke, as pictured from East River Road on Grand Island Saturday. (Photo by Larry Austin)
Smoke billows from the stacks at Tonawanda Coke, as pictured from East River Road on Grand Island Saturday. (Photo by Larry Austin)
By Larry Austin
Island Dispatch Editor
Town Supervisor Nathan McMurray said citizens need to band together against Tonawanda Coke Corp. "to make sure they don't get away literally with murder."
During a press conference Saturday morning on East River Road within site of Tonawanda Cokes smoke stacks, McMurray was joined by activist Jackie James-Creedon of Citizen Science Community Resource to call for action against the company that was still operating in spite of a cease and desist order from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.
"We have banded together and we have worked together as a community to stand up to this company that's been polluting our communities for way too long," James-Creedon said, noting the company has until Aug. 4 to respond to the order.
 "What we're saying today is we have had enough. We want that plant closed today."
Tonawanda Coke was found by the federal court of violating the Federal Clean Air Act and Federal Hazardous Waste regulations. The company was fined and one employee sent to jail.
According to the DEC, an inspection of the Tonawanda Coke facility July 19 followed numerous resident complaints. DEC documented several violations of environmental regulations, which it classified as "persistent and ongoing."
If Tonawanda Coke does not comply with the order, the DEC will revoke their air permits.
In issuing the cease and desist order, Basil Seggos, commissioner of the NYS DEC, said the action is "to prevent potential harm to its workers, surrounding community, and the environment." The DEC plans to initiate air monitoring in nearby communities.
"I've been pushing for action on this for years. It's a public health issue. I'm thankful the DEC is stepping in to protect our residents," McMurray said.
McMurray noted TCC was founded in 1910. "We are living with the legacy of that era still," he said, when the river was used as a dump.
"We've done a good job starting to move away from that era, but we still have these tombstones from that previous era scattered across Western New York. We need to clean those up," he said.
McMurray said that following its loss in court, Tonawanda Coke "made a promise. Their promise was they were going to clean things up. They were going to follow environmental regulations. So a lot of people breathed a sigh of relief. We thought we can start doing cleanup, so we started doing soil sampling studies. We started taking other measures thinking, 'What's it gonna take to fix the problems?'"
Instead, the problems have gotten worse, McMurray said Island residents have told him.
"Over the last year or so, I started getting complaints, and then more recently I started getting phone calls, whistleblowers, telling me it's not better. It's worse."
 McMurray said Tonawanda Coke belches black smoke, so his office "has been pestering the DEC" to take action.
"Have they built up a significant level of trust that we should believe them?" McMurray said of Tonawanda Coke. "There can't be any more promises or half promises. The only solution left is to shut it down."
The press conference took place at the home of Paul Leuchner, who hosted the meeting from his home on East River Road directly across from Tonawanda Coke. Leuchner said, "We're getting a southeast wind right now, which is blowing that crap from the plant right on us."
In the past, Tonawanda Coke would belch smoke from the smokestacks at night.
"Now there is just blatant disregard," Leuchner said. "They're just pumping out whatever they want. In fact, just before you got here, they did what they call a coke oven push. There was a huge plume of white smoke and everything else came out and all the stacks started spewing out black smoke."
Leuchner claimed Tonawanda was "trying to make coke as fast as they can" because they've told the DEC in the discussions that customer orders are more important than health and welfare of the community.
James-Creedon pointed to what she called fugitive emission, when the company soaks the hot coke with water, outside, causing the white steam.
"Inside of that is all kinds of toxins," Leuchner said. "It looks nice and clean because it's white smoke, but that's only the water vapor shielding what's in it."
Leuchner said when the wind blows from the wrong direction, "It's covering everything on the east coast of Grand Island."
That includes the bridge, covering commuters.
"In fact, down that corridor all last week when we had that hot weather and they were spewing all of this crap out there, they actually had a cloud that almost looked like a fog. It was going over the 190 between the 290 and the bridge."
"It's a regional problem, and it's a regional problem that affects not only the people who live here but the tourists who come here too," Leuchner said.

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