For Clean Air Coalition, smokestacks implosion is a victory, but there’s still much more work to do

(WIVB) – There were cheers from the Clean Air Coalition of WNY when the Tonawanda Coke smokestacks came down Saturday morning, but organizers say there’s still much work to be done.

A group of coalition members gathered early Saturday morning at Fisherman’s Park in Grand Island to watch the implosion.

“We have years of remediation ahead of us,” said Emily Terrana, Environmental Justice Organizer for Clean Air Coalition said. “They’re just taking down the stacks so they can do the real work – getting into the soil, getting into the groundwater, and really bringing that site that was criminally managed for years.”

The Clean Air Coalition is a member of the Tonawanda Community Working Group, which has been established to give the community a seat at the table with the Tonawanda Coke site developer to support the site’s cleanup and revitalization.

“It’s a mess, and it’s going to take a very long time to do the right work,” Terrana said. “We all deserve a River Road corridor, a Tonawanda, an Erie County, a Western New York that all of us can participate in and it’s going to take diligence and tenacity from community members.”

Clean Air Coalition member Jim Jones, who is also the retired Town of Tonawanda engineer, called the stacks coming down “a milestone” for the community.

“They’ve been here for over 100 years,” Jones said. “It’s a chapter of a legacy that is closed. I’m very optimistic of what’s forward.”

Clean Air member Gary Schulenberg said that the implosion should have been more of a memorial to those who were sickened and died as a result of toxic chemicals from the site.

“The chimney stacks are really of no consequence – they admitted it was highly symbolic snd there is work to be done,” he added.

In 2009, the NYSDEC and the U.S. EPA undertook air sampling and found dangerously high levels of carcinogen benzene in their tests.

In 2013, Tonawanda Coke was convicted of violating the federal Clean Air Act after mishandling hazardous waste. The government reached a civil settlement against the Tonawanda Coke Corporation amounting to over $20 million.

Tonawanda Coke filed for bankruptcy and announced it would shut down operations in October 2018, following years of scrutiny including a cease-and-desist order from the DEC.

“It took a federal lawsuit, criminal charges against folks who worked at the Tonawanda Coke plant, trips to Albany, so many Zoom calls and meetings,” Terrana said. “The stacks coming down is a symbol of community organizing work, the government doing the right thing, and polluters being held accountable for what they’ve done.”

Getting Tonawanda Coke cleaned up is personal to Terrana, who grew up in and just bought a house in Buffalo’s Riverside neighborhood, which is near the plant.

“I know so many people who have had illnesses- cancers, developmental and physical disabilities,” Terrana said. “My mother passed away from pancreatic cancer three years ago when she was 54 years old. The stacks coming down doesn’t bring her back, but I know that she and many other people we have lost are looking down on us and are proud of us.”

For more information on the Clean Air Coalition of WNY, check out their social media pages or click here.

Kaley Lynch is a digital reporter who has been part of the News 4 team since 2017. See more of her work here.

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