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Democracy broke out in a Town of Tonawanda gymnasium Thursday as more than 80 people brainstormed about how to spend money from a potentially hefty fine that could be imposed on an industrial polluter.

Most of the people there were nearby neighbors of Tonawanda Coke, which in late March was found guilty of 14 counts involving violations of the Clean Air Act and Resource Conservation and Recovery Act over 11 years, including the excessive discharge of coke-oven gas that contains cancer-causing benzene.

A mostly working-class crowd gathered in the Boys & Girls Club of Town of Tonawanda, discussing issues around tables in small groups, jotting down ideas on Post-it notes sorted onto colored poster board with various headings, and sharing highlights with the larger group.

It was the first session in a several-stage process to let local residents have their say in how resources could be put to use to reduce the adverse impact of air pollution and land contamination, and improve the public’s health. U.S. District Chief Judge William M. Skretny could fine Tonawanda Coke up to $200 million at sentencing July 15. Twenty-five percent of that could be used in the community to address environmental concerns.

“I’m from the City of Tonawanda, and getting people to come together like this – the ones being affected – and actually give their ideas was great,” said Lindsay Amico.

“Some of the ideas were good, and some somewhat unworkable, but it was a good starting point,” said Anne Matjeka, a Town of Tonawanda resident.

Matjeka praised the Clean Air Coalition of Western New York, which organized the participatory budgeting exercise in democracy in use in other countries and several municipalities in this country, and community organizer Rebecca Newberry.

“I can’t believe how organized they are,” Matjeka said. “Rebecca is changing our world.”

Newberry said she was pleased to see people engaged who often aren’t asked to participate significantly in political activity.

“The thing with this kind of meeting is that sometimes it can get a little messy, but I think sometimes the messier democracy gets, the better,” Newberry said. “By ‘messy,’ I mean there are lots of different ideas, and not everybody agrees, but the idea is to get them all on the table and have an honest conversation.”

Potential projects must reduce adverse effects to public health of air pollution or land contamination, without duplicating projects mandated or funded by the federal government, or legally required to be done by Tonawanda Coke.

As the two-hour session proceeded, numerous ideas emerged:

Identifying sources of air pollution. Testing open and closed landfills. Building new parks. Establishing an environmental health center. Creating a pollution museum with monitoring devices.

Also, offering educational forums on the dangers of pesticides. Conducting independent air-quality testing. Converting River Road into a parkway.

Some ideas, such as increasing mass transit, were put under a category of projects that the government would need to do.

Erie County Legislator Kevin R. Hardwick, R-City of Tonawanda, suggested that what was on display was a more pure form of democracy than what occurs within the Legislature. “This was a lot more meaningful, a lot more sincere,” Hardwick said. “When people spoke, it was coming from the heart.”

email: msommer@buffnews.com