Former TCC Site Brownfield Application is “Incomplete, Premature, and Not in the Best Interest of the Public”

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Clean Air Coalition Calls on NYS DEC To Reject Tonawanda Coke Brownfield Application, Citing The Application is “Incomplete, Premature, and Not in the Best Interest of the Public”

 

Clean Air submitted comments to the NYS DEC for the former Tonawanda Coke Facility by Riverview Innovation and Technology Campus, including two official organizational comments and comments written by Clean Air members.

In New York State, there are two major pathways for remediation. The Superfund Program is a robust enforceable remediation program, the New York State Brownfields program is a tax credit program for developers. If the DEC approves the application, taxpayers will reimburse developers for remediation costs, Honeywell avoids further enforcement action and cost recovery, there is no mandate for workers to make prevailing wage.

If approved as is, the NYSDEC will warp the purpose of the Brownfield Cleanup Program (BCP), originally intended as a pathway to return blighted properties to the tax rolls. This application sets a dangerous precedent, reducing the program to a loophole for legally recognized primary polluters to avoid their financial and environmental responsibility. Clean Air members, and the residents of Western New York deserve a full and comprehensive remediation, which is not what current application seeks.” 

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Operating the company until the late 70s under their predecessor Allied Chemical, Honeywell is responsible for a large portion of legacy waste at the Tonawanda Coke site. To cuts costs, Honeywell hired lobby firm e3communications last year, and  lobbied New York State to agree to a Brownfield designation.

Jon Williams, owner of the former American Axle site in the City of Buffalo, purchased the property through bankruptcy late last year for $1.00. William’s has been highly criticized for his lack of urgency in remediating the polluted site in the Delavan Grider community, and as the Western New York’s top donor for Donald Trump’s 2020 campaign. 

Clean Air members, concerned with the application’s inadequacy and illegitimacy, requested the DEC hold a public hearing in early December. After weeks of no response, with the comment period closing, members decided to host a meeting for fellow community members to share their concerns about the future of the site and who should pay for remediation. The meeting was held this past Wednesday, was attended by over 50 residents and members of organized labor.

New York State is about to make a decision that will impact the lives of Western New Yorkers for generations. We are disrupting this process because we don’t want a tragic national story. We want this story to be one of our community’s resilient transition. A transition where we achieve a full comprehensive remediation of this site. A transition where the polluter pays for the harm they have done to us. A transition where remediation workers receive prevailing wages to sustain their families. Jon William’s plan does not lay out that vision. If this application is approved as is, this project will cause our community great harm,” said Rebecca Newberry, Executive Director of the Clean Air Coalition.

“When profits are the driving force, we get clean up projects that will be bid based on how little cleaning we do and how little we pay the workers. This leads to unsafe conditions for the workers and for the community. When prevailing wage and public open bidding are attached, both required by the Supefund program, we get workers that are trained and compensated well and workers that care about the work that they do for their community and neighbors. What better way to heal the damage caused by Tonawanda Coke than to let our local building trades workers clean up this mess for their families and neighbors. Let us do the right thing. Let us clean up their mess because it’s the right thing to do, not because someone else can make a profit off it, that is truly adding insult to injury.” said Gary Swain, Business Manager of I.U.O.E. Local 17.

Clean Air’s comment goes on to state “Given the long history of criminal environmental violations that have occurred on this property, the fact that the property is located in an environmental justice community, is subject to current ongoing removal action by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and there exists a viable Principle Responsible Party (PRP), we request that only after this property has been determined to be found not to be a significant threat to human health or the environment should it be considered for a tax incentive program: such as the Brownfield Cleanup Program (BCP).

January 18th marks the final day of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s (DEC) 30-day comment period on the application. The public can still comment by phone: Call Benjamin McPherson at 716-851-7220 or by email to Benjamin.mcpherson@dec.ny.gov with a carbon copy to derweb@dec.ny.gov with the Subject line: Public comment on Riverview Innovation and Technology Campus, Site ID# C915353. All comments must be received by January 18th 2020.

Tonawanda Coke was found guilty in March 2013 of breaking 14 federal laws under the Clean Air Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. Mark Kamholz was found guilty on the same counts and an additional count of obstruction of justice.

Since the EPA’s enforcement action, there was a reported 92% reduction in benzene from the continuous air monitor at Grand Island Blvd. and a 68% reduction at the air monitor on Brookside Terrace. The company was fined $12.5 million in fines, 5 years of probation, and to pay nearly $12 million for future health and environmental studies. Mark Kamholz was sentenced to 1 year and 1 day in prison for plus a $20,000 fine and a supervised release after serving the term.

In the fall of 2018, the Tonawanda Coke company was found guilty of violating their criminal probation related to a 2014 environmental criminal sentence. Shortly after this verdict, the company’s leadership filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The company ceased operations at the facility on October 14, 2018 and permanently vacated the site. The Environmental Protection Agency is currently on  site managing immediate risks to human health and the environment

 



“Public Hearing” on Future of Tonawanda Coke

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) is reviewing a brownfield application for the former Tonawanda Coke Site, submitted by Jon Williams, developer. There is a 30 day public comment period on this application that ends January 18th.

If the DEC approves the application, taxpayers reimburse developers for remediation costs, Honeywell avoids further enforcement action and cost recovery, there is no mandate for workers to make prevailing wage, and Williams is rewarded with tax credits to cover costs.We believe the polluters, Honeywell & Tonawanda Coke, should pay for their mess through the Federal Superfund Program. Read more about Honeywell’s history and responsibility here. 

DEC has refused to answer our request to hold a public hearing. So we are holding our own. Join Us.

Wednesday, January 15th 6pm-8pm

USW Local 135

810 Sheridan Drive Tonawanda 14150.

How do I comment on the application if I can’t make the “hearing”? 

All comments must reference SITE ID # C915353 and Site Name: Riverview Innovation and Technology Campus and be received by January 18th.

By phone: Call Benjamin McPherson at 716-851-7220.

By Email: Send Email to Benjamin.mcpherson@dec.ny.gov with a carbon copy to derweb@dec.ny.gov with the Subject line: Public comment on Riverview Innovation and Technology Campus, Site ID# C915353.



Plutocratic Scheming Preserves Inequality

By Gary Schulenberg, Member

Let’s look at the “plutes” of this country (plutocracy – power/rule by the wealthy). Examples of their influence abound. Whether it be tax cuts or dodges for the “0.1%,” the college admission scandal (Felicity Huffman), the buying of justice (Jeffrey Epstein, let us count the ways these exclusive and elusive groups legally or not, increase their power.

Sometimes it’s the flick of a pen that changes the financial landscape. For example, stock buybacks were illegal before 1982, being seen as stock manipulation. Now they’re the rage, making money for CEOs and enhancing their obscene compensations and golden parachutes.

Both the old money and the nouveau riche employ some slick and cunning tactics to enhance their positions. All done with a smile or expressions of righteous indignation when called for.

Public relations looms large in their plutocratic scheming. Tout the stock market climbs and low unemployment but ignore staggering student debt, health-induced bankruptcies, rising child poverty and homelessness. Sing the praises of technology’s supposed propensity to foster free speech but suppress the intrusiveness of data collection and tech’s monopolistic maneuvering. Ad nauseam lying, propaganda and rhetorical fallacies are all benchmarks for the plutes.

The perverse use of philanthropy is another shrewd calculation. Millions of dollars do flow into worthwhile entities but let’s check the motivation behind them. Is the donation a mea culpa for past injustices, ignoring that the exploitation of workers or the public was the source of the funds?

While we can point to many examples of the above on larger stages, we may have a local practitioners of these savvy approaches. Read the following and decide for yourself.

Let’s examine the case of Jon Williams, who is a demolition and environmental contractor and real estate developer. He, along with his wife Heather, also sponsors and heads the OSC Charitable Foundation and sits on the boards of other foundations.

The public relations image that Williams portrays is that of a “green” businessman.

He created a company, Viridi Parente, that makes battery packs to power construction equipment to build “green machines”. His company, Ontario Speciality Contracting (OSC) works for the petroleum and chemical industries. OSC is involved in the demolition and remediation of polluted sites, thus cleaning up the environment.

These supposed “green” activities may be part and parcel of shrewd maneuvers to execute a corporate phenomenon called “greenwashing”. This involves a series of deceptive practices that convey a false impression and utilizes misleading information that a company/corporation is “green”. The business in question is in fact, environmentally unfriendly.

Williams’ “green” characterization is tainted by a number of facts. OSC is involved in the fracking industry that has its own ecological baggage. While Williams purchased the PCB laden GM/American Axle Plant on East Delevan over a decade ago, he only recently moved forward with the New York State Brownfield Cleanup Program process (BCP) for the site. He was quoted as saying “I’m not going to take responsibility for what GM did forever.” “Green?” This was done as he sought to purchase Tonawanda Coke.

What is the cost of “green’”? The financial foundation for his company Viridi Parente was based on millions of dollars in government subsidies and investments. OSC’s remediation of the Buffalo Color site was partially funded by $6.6 million worth of brownfield cleanup (BCP) tax credits, with some help from Honeywell, which poisoned the land. Keep in mind the tax credits from the BCP are NYS tax money that is not collected. This is especially pertinent when we confront the need for state revenues with projected multi-billion deficits. Is all this “green” hue part of a PR campaign and/or an element of the “shiny thing syndrome?

On to philanthropy and various types of contributions. Williams established OSC Charitable Foundation which has assisted dozens of worthy causes. He is also a member of a number of boards for other charities. These seemingly good works are laudable but how much does PR play a part in the motivation? Are these charities part of legacy shaping? Are the donations meant to distract us so it can be “business as usual”? How much of these contributions are from revenues raised due to the availability of government monies and questionable business ventures? Williams is an equal opportunity political donor. Are donations a “grease the wheels” tactic? Is it “green” to be the number one contributor from WNY to our chief climate change denier, the President?

Let’s not ignore the huge array of tax write-offs that can be employed. Philanthropy has become a financial tool for the wealthy. A vast array of laws lessen income, estate, and capital gains taxes for the elites. One only needs to look at the inequality in tax rates on capital gains (pro-wealthy) and regular income (most of us). The general public can’t avail themselves to such financial devices as Donor-Advised Funds or use carried interest tax loopholes, but those of means might.

All of this does not mean that the making of money is inherently evil. But if the wealth is accumulated through the exploitation of others, there is active participation in a corrupt system, and there exists suspect motives in philanthropic practices, then ethical and moral questions abound.

All of these things are of paramount importance as we confront the issues connected to the cleanup costs and remediation of the infamous Tonawanda Coke site, which Williams recently purchased. Is it going to be business as usual or are we going to stand against the corporate welfare of the past?

We call upon our state government to demand that Tonawanda Coke be designated a federal Superfund site. In doing so, Honeywell, the liable party is held accountable. WNY residents have had to bear the burden of corporate irresponsibility and New York taxpayers need to end these bailouts. Environmental justice needs to be the paradigm for the remediation and protection of our neighborhoods and communities.

A portion of this blog post is re-posted from the Buffalo News Letter to the Editor



4 years after NRG Huntley’s Closure, Community Asks How Far Has Tonawanda Come?

Following national trends of low gas prices, uncompetitive coal prices, and lack of demand, the NRG Huntley plant in the Town of Tonawanda was retired in 2016. At the time it was the largest polluter in Erie County and the largest tax provider to the Town. Huntley’s revenue had long allowed for Tonawanda to maintain quality services, roads, education and jobs. 

Anticipating the closure, the Clean Air Coalition, the Western New York Area Labor Federation, and the Kenmore Teachers Association, launched a campaign to transition the facility.  This work culminated in a state transition fund (Bill S. 6408—C A. 9008–C Section BB), the first fossil fuel transition fund in the country. The bill established a seven year bridge fund to ease the town’s transition away from Huntley revenues and allow the local economy to regain its footing without massive cuts to public services.

To steer the economic transition long term, we produced Tonawanda Tomorrow, a community-based economic transition plan. Led by Clean Air and our labor partners, over 1,000 community members came together to develop this plan, which envisioned an economically vibrant and environmentally sustainable future for the town. 

The final section of Tonawanda Tomorrow focuses on implementation, with concrete action steps to fuse the gap in revenue loss long term, increase waterfront access, grow renewable energy, and build wealth for poor and working class people.

Prompting Accountability

Shortly after the town board adopted the plan, the Tonawanda Tomorrow Implementation Team, responsible for the coordination of the plan’s implementation, ceased functioning. For months Clean Air members showed up to Town Board meetings, asking for updates on the implementation process, questions which went unaddressed. By 2019, with no answers from our elected leaders, we knew it was time to take action.

We planned a public meeting where each organization who had committed to next steps in Tonawanda Tomorrow would share their progress. We invited representatives to attend and complete a progress report: a form outlining each project they had committed to, asking what was completed and what milestones were the next priority. Out of the seven organizations listed in the plan, six participated. The Implementation Team did not respond.

Economic Transition is Long Haul Work 

Early on in our experience, members of Clean Air’s organizing team had the opportunity to learn from the incredible trainers with Dismantling Racism Works, who grounded us in a guiding principle that racial justice work is both urgent and will take a long time. We see this principle alive in all our organizing work, including economic and energy transition. 

As we work to transition to an economy that does not harm our environment or our neighborhoods, we have to balance a collective vision for that future, while at the same time engage in the present. This means our organizing needs to be immediate and relevant, AND invested for the long haul. We need institutions that build and sustain community and power. 

Long haul work means at times it’s tedious and invisible. It means sometimes we need to create moments that inspire others to feel the urgency simmering just beneath our daily lives. Urgency invokes motivation, accountability, and compels decision makers and implementers to stop wasting time. 

Over 60 people attended our meeting on October 15th. Campaign team members designed the agenda, co-facilitated the meeting, and worked with press. Presenters on projects included members of the Tonawanda Town Board, the Town Planning and Engineering Department, Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, Clean Air, the Western New York Area Labor Federation, the United Steelworkers and the Kenmore Teachers Association. 

Where do we go from here? 

Just Transition is easy to talk about. It’s incredibly difficult to practice. We need systematic structural change in our economy: both in how it works and who it works for. It means that we have to organize for what needs to be done and who makes the decisions at the same time. We do this work in a landscape of decision makers who, most of the time, do not like to collaborate, do not want to solve difficult problems, and who perceive sharing power as giving up control. 

Let’s be clear. We are not just trying to solve a problem about a coal plant closure, job loss and revenue cuts. We are trying to end economic inequality. We are trying to end environmental racism. We are trying to solve the climate crisis. We are trying to bring environmental justice. We are trying to change governments so that decisions are made by the people those decisions affect. We know we will not solve all these problems by transitioning one local plant, or shifting one local economy to do less harm. But we start somewhere. 

The status report indicated progress has been made on both infrastructure investments that are crucial to attract new employers, and renewable energy projects that will decrease the Town’s expenses and increase revenues. The meeting gave us an opportunity to celebrate the powerful work that’s been done so far in Tonawanda, and highlighted how far we still have to go.

This process answered some of our questions, as it created new ones for us to grapple with. Transition is complex and ongoing. And we’re in the murky, frustrating, exciting midst of it, creating the path forward, trying to light it as we go.

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. View the Tonawanda Tomorrow Plan. 

CoAuthored by 

Linnea Brett, Community Organizer,

Rebecca Newberry Executive Director and

Gary Schulenberg, Clean Air Member, Huntley Campaign Team