After the Tonawanda Coke plant closed, government officials and local researchers expressed concerns about the environmental impacts that chemical contamination could cause to nearby neighborhoods and the Niagara River. Those concerns were justified by the discovery of about 900,000 gallons of ammonia waste, leaking tanks, and soils contaminated with “heavy metals like lead, mercury, cyanide and arsenic, PCBs and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, a class of chemicals linked to increased rates of cancer.”1
Researchers have been conducting additional soil sampling from the surrounding communities of Green Island and the City and Town of Tonawanda to determine how far off-site the chemicals may have travelled, and therefore how extensive of a remediation is required.
After an initial tour of the surrounding area, Basil Seggos, the Commissioner of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (the “DEC”), estimated that “cleaning up Tonawanda Coke could take years.” 2
Based in part on those discoveries, the Erie County Legislature adopted a resolution in January 2019 asking the United States Environmental Protection Agency (the “EPA”) to designate the Tonawanda Coke facility a Superfund Site.3
But the Town of Tonawanda apparently has other plans for the Site. In a letter to the DEC, the Town Supervisor for Tonawanda requested that the DEC take the site off the Superfund list and re-assign it to the DEC’s Brownfield Cleanup Program (the “BPC”), which was established “to encourage private-sector cleanups of brownfields and to promote their redevelopment as a means to revitalize economically blighted communities.” According to local officials, the BPC could help facilitate a faster, safer, and more cost-effective cleanup and redevelopment of the site.
The questions and debates that the local municipalities are facing with the Tonawanda Coke plant are by no means unique to this facility. In fact, a plethora of local governments, businesses, and individuals all across New York face questions all the time about how to deal with contaminated properties, including what government programs can help and how to recover cleanup costs from the person or entity responsible.
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