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Grand Island: Town Board resolution supports DEC on Tonawanda Coke

Sat, Aug 25th 2018 07:00 am
Smoke billows out of a Tonawanda Coke smokestack Thursday afternoon as seen from Ferry Village. (Photo by Larry Austin)
Smoke billows out of a Tonawanda Coke smokestack Thursday afternoon as seen from Ferry Village. (Photo by Larry Austin)
By Larry Austin
Island Dispatch Editor
The Grand Island Town Board passed a resolution Monday in a show of solidarity with the State Department of Environmental Conservation's efforts to shut down Tonawanda Coke Corporation.
The board voted 5-0 to support the DEC's cease and desist order against the foundry coke manufacturer located across the Niagara River from Grand Island and further called on the company "to immediately halt all operations."
Town Supervisor Nathan McMurray said the resolution, coupled with similar resolutions expected to be passed by other municipalities, would buttress the case against Tonawanda Coke, which still operates in spite of a cease and desist order from the DEC issued July 20.
In making the resolution, the board noted Tonawanda Coke "has been convicted of numerous environmental violations in recent years." The resolution said Tonawanda Coke "continues to operate the facility at all hours, filling the air with benzene - a chemical known to cause leukemia and lymphoma - and other pollutants that have the potential to harm surrounding communities."
The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation issued a cease and desist order to Tonawanda Coke July 20 that noted the company's "seeming disregard for environmental laws, rules and regulations as well as numerous enforcement actions," adding the company's operations "show a blatant disregard for the environment and the health and welfare of the surrounding community."
In discussing the resolution during a board work session meeting prior to the regular meeting, Town Supervisor Nathan McMurray said the DEC will "take the resolution and they'll make it part of their legal case against Tonawanda Coke, and they need evidence that the community is affected by it. Tonawanda Coke's going to say, 'People don't care.' "
McMurray said Tonawanda Coke is "a company that we know on the record has put more dangerous things into our air than any other company probably in the country, and they're now operating with a collapsed tunnel with no exhaust. And they're doing it only for one reason: They can't turn the place off. If they turn it off, the place closes forever. So they're running it right now with the full knowledge they're polluting the air because they can't turn it off."
"They can't fix the problem. This is the thing. They're at a crossroads. They cannot fix the problem because if they shut the thing down, that facility is done. To fix the problem, they have to shut it down and rebuild it, which they're not willing to do. They want to keep running it as is for as long as possible while they pollute us."
Coal is converted into coke in refractory-lined ovens. Paul Leuchner, who lives across the river from Tonawanda Coke on East River Road and who hosted at his home a press conference by McMurray when the DEC issued its order, said he worked in the steel industry when he was with the Army Corps of Engineers and has experience with coke batteries. "All of the ovens are lined with special refractory," he said. "If they turn the heat off and it cools, the refractory is shot. They have to replace the entire lining of the oven. They don't want to bear the cost of that. It's pretty expensive. It's very labor intensive."
McMurray added, "It appears what they're doing right now is that they are trying to squeeze every last penny out of this thing before the inevitable comes, which is closure, because right now you have a complete collapse of that tunnel inside and they can't keep going unless they turn it off and rebuild the thing, which they're not going to do."
McMurray said the matter is "pretty clear cut."
"If I was doing this my yard, if I was dumping oil into the river every day and saying, 'Look, it's part of my business, it's my business to do this, you guys would be down on me like a million bucks."
During the public comment period of the regular meeting, Jackie James-Creedon, director of Citizen Science Community Resources, praised the board for leading from the front on the matter of Tonawanda Coke.
"I would like to applaud the Town Board and Supervisor McMurray for taking lead on this. We did get verbal commitments from the two other municipalities, which is the City of Tonawanda and the Town of Tonawanda, to do the same, however the Town of Grand Island ... has been more proactive, and this is the first resolution that's up for vote."
James-Creedon told the board that she spoke Monday with a DEC representative to receive an update on the issue and said, "Tonawanda Coke ... continues to pollute our communities almost on a daily occurrence. They violate their air permit, which is the opacity monitor. They have their own stack monitor right in the stack and they are submitting these numbers to the New York State DEC being well aware that they are in violation."
A court hearing on the matter is set for Oct. 10, she said.
Leuchner, also speaking during the public comment portion of the meeting, encouraged the board to support the resolution and the cease and desist order.
"It's pretty important that we demonstrate solidarity with the communities who are fighting the effects of this air pollution that's coming from this plant that's been going on for decades," he said. "And it's pretty important that we also support the environment conservation commissioner and his attempts to try to get this issue resolved."
Tonawanda Coke hasn't "lived up to their commitments and responsibilities. They've violated the existing permits and rules and regulations that govern air quality regulation in this particular state. In fact, they currently have 174 active violations and probably many more at this moment. So we need to unite with the other communities to keep this menace under control and I would hope that you would approve that resolution this evening."
Councilwoman Beverly Kinney said the vote on Tonawanda Coke "hits very close to home for me. I lived right across on Love Road from the coke plant."
Kinney said, "In my family alone, we had deaths from lung disease. My mom died of lung cancer. She had two different forms of lung cancer, not just one. Someone in our family died from bladder cancer, and I myself have suffered from cancer. That's four people in one household across from the coke plant.
She said other family members have suffered from lymphoma and leukemia.
"When you see 10 people in my family - my close family - have had multiple kinds of cancers - not even the same kinds of cancers, they're all different - you have to start looking and saying, 'Something's not quite right here.' So I applaud the citizen group for all their work and this board for bringing it forward."
McMurray concluded by saying he entered politics in part because he thought the community at large had been taken advantage of "for too long by companies like Tonawanda Coke. You shouldn't drive around the Niagara River, which is the most beautiful river in the entire world, and see these hulking relics from a different period that polluted and killed our people. So I'm proud to be a small, small part of fighting back against that terrible, terrible legacy."

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