Twenty-five people rallied outside the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s Buffalo office Tuesday, calling on the agency to get tougher on Tonawanda Coke.
The DEC extended the state operating license for Tonawanda Coke, which makes high-quality foundry coke for steel manufacturing, after its five-year permit expired in 2007.
But Rebecca Newberry, program coordinator for the Clean Air Coalition of Western New York, said the state agency needs to incorporate into a full five-year permit changes the EPA has required of the company in response to public concerns over elevated levels of benzene and other cancer-causing fumes.
“While progress has been made by the EPA, the changes that are happening at the plant need to be written into the new operating permit to ensure those changes have longevity,” Newberry said.
“It gives the state the backing to work with the company regarding how much they emit of certain air pollutants, the records they keep and the testing they do – all of the things that make the company transparent to the neighborhood.”
Ronald Malec, of the City of Tonawanda, held a framed photo of Tonawanda Coke up to the crowd, the plant’s smokestacks appearing behind a fence.
“This illustrates the whole problem. You see a chain-link fence around industrial facilities. A chain-link fence does a pretty good job of keeping people out, but really doesn’t do a damn thing to keep pollution in,” Malec said.
Newberry said she often goes door to door near the plant and hears stories from residents concerned about plumes of smoke and smells that are so bad people cover their faces to sleep at night.
She listens to stories of illness and fears of what pollutants could be doing to children’s health.
“It’s not right that a corporation that continually treats a community irresponsibly is allowed to operate under the same permit they had since way before enforcement started to take place,” Newberry said.
“We’re here to say, ‘Tonawanda Coke, we’re still watching you.’ ’’
DEC spokeswoman Megan Gollwitzer said the agency is limited in what it could comment on due to ongoing enforcement efforts but defended the agency’s extension decision.
“The existing permit will remain administratively extended until there is a final decision to issue or deny the facility’s renewal application. A decision on renewal of the permit has been delayed until the conclusion of ongoing enforcement actions with the company,” Gollwitzer said.
Tonawanda Coke also is operating under a consent order with the EPA, which requires the company to comply with various testing and cleanup actions within set time frames.
A person who answered the phone at Tonawanda Coke on Tuesday said no one was available to comment.