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Residents relieved over Tonawanda Coke closure, but say the fight isn't over

TONAWANDA, N.Y. (WIVB) - Friday, News 4 reported the Tonawanda Coke Corporation would close its River Road plant. 

This comes after years of strife between the company and residential community groups, who claim its pollutants for years put homeowners and the environment at risk. 

"They don't live in a bubble. They live in a community. And they have a responsibility to this community," said Jackie James Creedon, Director of Citizen Science Community Resources.

Attorneys for the company attempted to block News 4 from being present during a federal court hearing Friday, where the plans for a shutdown were revealed. However, U.S. District Judge William Skretny allowed News 4 Investigate Producer Dan Telvock into court. 

Monday morning, the company released the following statement:

"Sadly, largely due to the financial obligations of its criminal sentence, significant and unanticipated expenses, the loss of a funding source, and the multiple and coordinated enforcement actions brought by various government agencies, Tonawanda Coke cannot continue operations. The Company began considering this decision last week and immediately started to plan an orderly and safe shutdown process in direct consultation with DEC and EPA. Despite our understanding that this information would be kept confidential, it was not, causing our workers to learn about the shutdown through the media. This outcome is truly unfortunate. Confidentiality was necessary to ensure the safety of Tonawanda Coke’s workers and the community, as shutting down a coke battery can be a complex and dangerous activity which can only be safely accomplished through careful, detailed planning, and utilization of experienced personnel. It was essential that we communicate with our workers to ensure they understood the situation and would continue to operate the battery safely. Despite the disappointing change in circumstance, we are doing our best to ensure a safe and orderly shutdown. We extend a debt of gratitude to all our workers, and sincerely apologize that circumstances beyond our control brought about this untimely end to the Company’s existence. Questions should be directed to Tonawanda Coke’s counsel, Hodgson Russ LLP."

According to the company, it began considering a shutdown last week.

Workers at the River Road plant said they were given little to no notice before hearing they'd be out of a job by the end of the month. Most employees at TCC are not unionized. 

According to a letter handed to one worker Monday morning, TCC's Director of Human Resources and Safety said:

"Tonawanda Coke expects that the shutdown of the Facility will occur during the 14-day period starting on Sunday, October 14, 2018 and ending on Saturday, October 27, 2018. As a result, your work at the Facility through Kirchner will also come to an end during this same 14-day period. The entire Facility will permanently close as a result of this shutdown and no bumping rights exist."

The process of shutting down the existing 30 functioning coke ovens will take around 37 1/2 hours. 

The state DEC will be on site during the shutdown process. 

According to an affidavit from the EPA, the agency expressed many concerns over the shutdown process itself. 

"The regularly agencies stated that TCC needed to make sure that they alerted the fire department. TCC stated that the only risk of explosion was the battery," the affidavit states. 

According to the DEC, several area fire departments were informed of this risk. 

The EPA also expressed concern about asbestos during the shutdown process. 

Air monitoring is currently being done around the plant. The DEC said once the shutdown process is complete, it will investigate any potential contamination on-site. 

"We always care about jobs in western New York, but they also sent all kind of horrible stuff into the neighborhood," said Sen. Chuck Schumer (D) Monday morning. 

Tonawanda Coke was found guilty of violating its probation in September for breaking state environmental laws related to its heat stack. 

The question then became how it was going to pay it's remaining 2 million dollar community service payment. 

This all comes after the company was convicted of violating the Federal Clean Air Act in 2013, incurring millions in fines and community payments. 

James Creedon said she is optimistic at this point; she feels the shutdown is the surrounding community's chance to turn a new page. 

But she told News 4 there's still a lot of work to be done before residents are fully at ease. 

"There's the clean-up. There is the clean-up on site and there's the clean-up off site. You know, potentially what went off site of Tonawanda Coke?"

The DEC responded to News 4's inquiry about off-site contamination with the following statement:

"As with all contaminated sites, if DEC’s investigation finds any contamination has migrated off the site, DEC will take the appropriate steps to thoroughly investigate that contamination, develop a cleanup plan to prevent any exposure to that contamination, and undertake actions to clean up that contamination."

City of Tonawanda resident Joyce Hogenkamp is still waiting on results for exterior testing the DEC did on her home. 

"The most surreal feeling was looking at the stacks yesterday and seeing nothing coming out of them at all. That brought me a sense of peace," she said. 

However, Hogenkamp said the stigma created by TCC still remains. She's not sure how long it will take to remove that stigma.

"Since the site is listed on the Superfund list, that the clean-up action will actually take place pretty quickly," said Town of Tonawanda Supervisor Joseph Emminger. 

He'd like to see the site re-purposed

"What about the new Bills stadium? Everything is right there. I throw that out for consideration at this point," he told reporters Monday afternoon.

The Tonawanda Coke Corporation has until October 17 to provide the federal government with its detailed financial information. 

This is a developing story. 

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