Establishing an environmental justice endowment. Buying and renovating 40 acres of potential parkland along the Niagara River. Working with manufacturers to reduce toxic chemicals. Providing a fund for people who live near the Tonawanda Coke plant to relocate.
These were among the 10 leading recommendations, with estimated price tags, voted on by 561 people – most of them residents of the Tonawandas, Grand Island and Buffalo’s Riverside section – at 12 polling places since Saturday, culminating in a final tally Thursday at the Boys & Girls Club in the Town of Tonawanda.
Community members voted on how to spend what could be up to $200 million in fines levied against Tonawanda Coke, 25 percent of which could be used to address community health and environmental needs.
“There is this assumption that you have to have an advanced degree or have to be elected to make these decisions,” said Rebecca Newberry of the Clean Air Coalition of Western New York, which organized the community vote.
“What I love about this process is that anyone can make decisions, and anyone can come to the table and put their ideas and put their dreams and their hopes for the neighborhood, and make it a reality. That’s what we saw tonight.”
Tonawanda Coke, which produces high-quality foundry coke for use in melting metal and removing impurities in steel manufacturing, was found guilty in late March of 14 counts, including the discharge of excessive levels of coke-oven gas containing cancer-causing benzene, dumping coal-tar sludge and failing to install anti-pollution equipment.
Mark L. Kamholz, the company’s environmental compliance officer, was also found guilty and could face up to 75 years in prison.
U.S. District Chief Judge William M. Skretny ruled earlier this week that he will delay his verdict from July 15 to Sept. 20 at the request of Rodney O. Personius, Kamholz’s defense attorney. Personius said his work on another case would make it difficult to respond in a timely fashion on behalf of his client.
The exercise in community-based democracy, in which community residents decide how public money is to be spent, culminated an intensive month of planning that began with a brainstorming session May 23. The 15 proposals people voted on were whittled down from dozens more by budget delegates whom participants had chosen.
The top vote-getter was the Industrial Pollution Prevention Project, which calls for working with small- to medium-size manufacturers in the Tonawandas, Grand Island and Riverside to reduce toxic chemical use, emissions and waste, and to improve energy-efficiency.
The Community Environmental Health Institute was the runner-up. It would focus on research, training, prevention and health care coordination for people especially affected by pollution.
The final say in how the money will be spent rests with the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Justice. Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., wrote letters to both agencies urging them to use the voting results as a guide when deciding projects to be funded by Tonawanda Coke’s fine.
All of the proposals, including their rankings, will be sent to the two government bodies, Newberry said.
Cheryl Viola, of the Town of Tonawanda, said she attended because her daughter was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 18 and needed a double mastectomy at 26. Genetic testing, she said, blamed the cancer on environmental factors. “I’ve only been a member of the Clean Air Coalition about nine months, but this community of volunteers has worked so hard and tirelessly. To have the community determine how to spend the fines, and not the government, is fabulous,” Viola said.
Thomas Ryan, of the Town of Tonawanda, who has lived on Kaufman Avenue near the plant for 36 years, has emphysema and bronchitis, and skin and prostate cancer. He said he was glad to see the tables turning on Tonawanda Coke. “They could never give us enough back for what they have taken away from us,” Ryan said. “This could have been brought to an end a long time ago. It didn’t get expensive enough, and it’s starting to cost them money now.”
News Staff Reporter Phil Fairbanks contributed to this report. email: email@example.com