A look back at Tonawanda Coke’s community impact

TONAWANDA, N.Y. (WIVB) — The community around Tonawanda Coke is credited with holding the company accountable and getting the area around Tonawanda Coke cleaned up. Many of whom, suffered from health issues.

It has been a long struggle for residents living in the shadow of the former Tonawanda Coke plant — going back nearly 20 years.

The dirty air, trouble breathing and the illnesses doctors had a hard time explaining. As in the case of Susan Mazur, who News 4 interviewed in 2015, whose joints were fusing and she was unable to walk and doctors didn’t know why.

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Years before, Susan lived in a mobile home park adjacent to the River Road plant.

“You’d blow your nose, and you’d have black stuff come out. And then I would get severe headaches, and those severe headaches would make me vomit and I had to lay down and I had a young child I needed to take care of,” Mazur told News 4 in 2015.

Mazur and others like her, from Tonawanda, North Tonawanda, Grand Island and Buffalo organized to demand answers from environmental officials and their elected representatives.

The State Department of Environmental Conservation and the United States Environmental Protection Agency undertook air sampling in 2009 and found dangerously high levels of benzene — a known carcinogen in their tests.

Ray Mercer of Grand Island told us in 2009, “We need to know the facts, and what is out there is pretty vague, But extremely concerning.”

Louisa Anderson of Grand Island added in 2009, “I have cancer but we have, within our block, seven people that have had cancer and died.”

Investigations prompted by citizen activism would lead to federal charges against Tonawanda Coke, and a manager, resulting in their convictions. Eventually, the government would reach a civil settlement against the company amounting to more than $20 million.

Tonawanda Coke shut down its operations and filed for bankruptcy in 2018. The site has been sold for the future development of a data tech center. In order to get there, the property is being cleaned up as a brownfield site, although environmentalists would prefer its designation as a superfund site.

“To do it haphazard and try to save a few pennies or maybe just do it — to honor your political aspirations is not what I think the Tonawanda residents want. Health is the most important thing, it’s priceless,” said Maria Tisby of the Clean Air Coalition.

Al Vaughters is an award-winning investigative reporter who has been part of the News 4 team since 1994. See more of his work here.

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