Group wants Tonawanda Coke designated a federal Superfund site

Local News

TONAWANDA, N.Y. – An environmental group hopes to convince the community that designating the former Tonawanda Coke as a federal Superfund site is better than making it a state Brownfield site.

While each programs’ steps to clean up contamination are comparable, how cleanup is enforced and who pays for it are different.

The Clean Air Coalition of Western New York has had its eyes on Tonawanda Coke since 2007, when it first sampled air in the area and found elevated levels of benzene. Twelve years later, the Coalition is still on the case. Thursday night, group leaders talked to community members at a meeting about why a Superfund site designation could lead to a more comprehensive cleanup on Tonawanda Coke.

The EPA has been on site since last fall’s shut down, and the DEC says New York State continues to investigate the best course of action.

The Clean Air Coalition, however, has a clear opinion now that it shared with residents: that a federal Superfund designation is better for cleaning severe contamination and going after former operators.

“We’re concerned about polluters taking responsibility and being held accountable for the damage that they have done to this community,” said the Coalition’s director, Rebecca Newberry.

In the plant’s history of operation, that’s Tonawanda Coke, and before that, Honeywell.

Newberry feels the superfund program enforces a strict plan.

“A way of doing that is by creating a liability structure, a legal structure that goes after cost recovery to primary polluters, to pay for that remediation,” Newberry said.

“We’ve gone to Albany. We’ve met with Commissioner Basil Seggos in April to try and encourage him to support us in a federal superfund because Mr. Seggos in the one in the state who can say, ‘Okay, this can go to federal superfund,” Tonawanda resident and Clean Air campaign leader Maria Tisby said.

DEC spokesperson and Chief of Staff Sean Maher said Thursday that all of the designations have cleanup plans rooted in science, safety, and remediation. He said if the cleanup becomes a state Brownfield or stays a state Superfund site (as portions of the site already are), the agency would still go after the responsible parties, but whatever’s not covered by former operators would be paid for with state resources.

Maher also said no Brownfield program applications have been submitted yet. He said the state has actively tried to listen to community concerns and explained that if and when a Brownfield application is submitted, it would trigger a public comment period.

News 4 also received a statement from the DEC, which you can read below:

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and the U.S. EPA are working together closely to ensure a safe shutdown of the operating components of the Tonawanda Coke facility since it closed in October 2018. 

Across the state, DEC optimizes strategies based on lessons learned from successful cleanup projects, including similarly contaminated industrial sites like Morgan Materials and the Bethlehem Steel site. New York’s responsible and aggressive approach has resulted in hundreds of successful cleanups strategically designed to safeguard communities from environmental harm, provide flexibility for future redevelopment, and meet the needs of local planning and development agencies. New York State is on the job at the Tonawanda Coke site and committed to a comprehensive cleanup.  The Tonawanda community deserves nothing less. 

After the EPA’s work to stabilize and secure the site is complete, a comprehensive investigation is necessary to understand the full nature and extent of contamination. DEC and EPA will conduct a full analysis of cleanup strategies, which will inform the selection of an appropriate cleanup action(s) to prepare the property for future re-use.

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