Taking a closer look at Tonawanda Coke’s turbulent history ahead of smokestack implosion


TONAWANDA, N.Y. (WIVB) — When the towering stacks at Tonawanda Coke disappear from the riverfront landscape, it’ll mark the next chapter in a tumultuous environmental battle.

Continued cleanup and redevelopment are the next steps for this controversial industrial complex. But getting to this point was marked by regulatory and court battles centered around environmental concerns.

For years, Tonawanda Coke had been in the crosshairs of state regulators and environmental activists. There were notices of violation issued by the state department of environmental conservation. Like problems with exceeding the opacity limit for the heat stack.

Environmental activist Jackie James-Creedon was among those laser-focused on the black belching smoke that critics say polluted nearby communities.

She told News 4 in 2018, “”What we continue to see after the tunnel collapse a couple months ago is black soot, smoke, coming from their smoke stack.”

Notices of violation kept coming and another had to do with Tonawanda Coke failing to submit a semi-annual report required by state permits.

“I cannot understand why they are not reporting or submitting their reports on time. There’s no excuses for that,” added James-Creedon.

The crackdown on alleged environmental violations continued in the summer of 2018 and included a cease and desist order. By then, Tonawanda Coke already had a history of legal problems. In 2013, the company was convicted by a federal court jury of violating the clean air act.

Even after the conviction, federal prosecutors accused the company of continuing to violate the law.

In 2018 Assistant Unites States Attorney Aaron Mango told us, “By polluting the air that the citizens of Grand Island and Tonawanda have to breathe and it can’t continue anymore.”

At the time, Tonawanda Coke claimed that statements like that were “unfair,” and that the government was reacting to public pressure. Meanwhile, federal prosecutors filed exhibits with the court that showed deteriorating conditions inside the plant — alleging the company had ignored requests to fix the problems.

By October 2018, Tonawanda Coke filed bankruptcy and announced it would shut down operations, raising the eyebrows of New York’s senior U.S. senator.

“There are about a hundred workers there, to have the state, work with the state. And I’ll do whatever I can to see that these folks get jobs,” Senator Chuck Schumer told us in 2018.

Once an economic driver in the days of big steel — these widely visible remnants of the past are about to come crashing down clearing the way for a new chapter yet to be written across the sprawling riverfront site.

Luke Moretti is an award-winning investigative reporter who has been part of the News 4 team since 2002. See more of his work here.

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