A bipartisan group of local, state and federal officials gathered Friday morning to urge people who lived, worked or spent significant amounts of time in the areas polluted by emissions from Tonawanda Coke to tell their stories before two important deadlines.
“The stories of the individuals have, for the most part, remained in the background,” said Assemblyman Robin L. Schimminger, D-Kenmore. “Now is the time for these silent witnesses to step forward and to share their experiences with the judge.”
One deadline is fast approaching. Those who believe they suffered a specific economic loss due to Tonawanda Coke’s illegal discharge of coke-oven gas, notably cancer-causing benzene, dumping of coal-tar sludge and failure to install anti-pollution equipment should submit restitution claims to the U.S. Attorney’s Office by June 14.
Separately, people wishing to comment on possible sentences for Tonawanda Coke, which was found guilty of 14 felony counts March 28, along with another 15 felony counts for one of its officials, must submit impact statements to the U.S. Attorney’s Office by July 1.
Many avenues have been set up for people to submit claims or comments.
Drop boxes and blank forms for impact statements will be provided in the municipal buildings of the Town and City of Tonawanda and on Grand Island.
Grand Island Supervisor Mary Cooke pointed to a map showing an affected section of Grand Island south of Whitehaven Road, directly across the river from Tonawanda Coke, where high emissions were found in air testing.
Community leaders and officials are hopeful that U.S. District Chief Judge William M. Skretny, who could fine Tonawanda Coke up to $200 million at sentencing July 15, also will specify that a large portion of the fine money be directed toward local projects.
Schimminger said the judge “will determine the price that the coke company will pay for its actions, and he will determine, under the permission that is granted him under federal law, how much of that price will come back to our localities. I’d rather not see a single penny of that price go to pay for bureaucrats in Washington. I’d rather see every penny of that price come back here to help meet the needs of our constituents.”
Jackie James-Creedon, a Tonawanda Community Fund organizer who was one of the first residents to act on long-standing community concerns over chemical odors affecting neighborhoods, said, “We need people to come out and send in these impact statements, because it has not been decided whether we are getting a penny of that money yet.”
Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, said, “There will be huge fines; that’s not the question,” and he agreed that the money “should not go to Washington, should not go to the bureaucracy, but should stay right in this community to mitigate, to remediate, the damage that has been done to this natural environment.”
Some of the damage that could result from exposure to benzene and other cancer-causing chemicals “will not manifest themselves for many, many years,” Higgins said. “So any and all fines imposed on this company should stay right in this community and be held in trust until we can assess the full damage that has been done.”
Erie County Legislator Kevin R. Hardwick, R-City of Tonawanda, urged that “people who have been telling us their stories for years now tell the federal district court and the Justice Department those same stories about how they have been harmed by the pollution from that plant, how it has resulted in cancer, in deaths and in general harm to the environment.”
“Tonawanda Coke has given a black eye to our community,” said Town of Tonawanda Supervisor Anthony Caruana. But more important are “the health-related problems and illnesses that our residents have endured, and will continue to endure, because of the blatant criminal actions of this corporation.”
More information on the case and specific instructions on what information people should include in statements is available on the website of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, justice.gov/usao/nyw.
Residents may write their own personal letters and send them to Sharon Knope at the U.S. Attorney’s Office, 138 Delaware Ave., Buffalo, NY 14202.
People also may fill out an impact statement form developed by the Tonawanda Community Fund. For assistance or information, call the fund at 873-6191 or email JackieJamesCreedon@gmail.com.
The form is also available on Higgins’ website, higgins.house.gov, under “Latest news.”