Tonawanda News

June 16, 2013

Voting for recovery

By Jessica Bagley
The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — Residents will be turning up at the polls this week in an effort to turn pollution and illness into an environmental recovery for the neighborhoods most impacted by Tonawanda Coke. 

Clean Air Coalition organized this week’s voting events, which allow residents to offer their opinions on how the potential the plant’s possible sentencing fines should be spent. 

“Over the last month, Clean Air has engaged hundreds of residents to identify community projects they would like to see funded by these fines,” a statement from the nonprofit reads. “Residents brainstormed many products at a large community assembly, and then fine-tuned these ideas into detailed projects that could reduce the risks of toxins and improve health in their neighborhoods.” 

The coke-making plant and its environmental manager, Mark Kamholz, face more than $200 million in fines and 75 years in prison when Judge William Skretny sentences them July 15. Since the defendants were found guilty of violating both the Clean Air Act and the Resource Recovery and Conservation Act in late March, organizers and politicians have been pressing Skretny and other government officials to keep a portion of the potential fines local. 

U.S. Attorney William Hochul said how those fines are allocated is almost exclusively Skretny’s decision.

“Keeping the funds local is complicated. It involves many other laws, including some that discuss where proposed fines must be allocated,” he said. “But in some other environmental cases, part of the sentence was a community restitution component.”

Hochul also said the government is treading on new ground, as the federal case against the plant is only the second Clean Air Act Case under Title V — the section which set up a national permitting program and required industrial companies to monitor their air pollution. 

The case and the sentencing could set a precedent for future environmental cases to come.

And if the potential fines do stay local, residents and organizers will be prepared. 

To come up with a consensus on how to spend the potential funds, the coalition used a participatory budgeting process that originated in Brazil. Rebecca Newberry, of the coalition, said the process is now being used in common council districts in New York City and in Chicago to determine how taxpayer money should be spent. 

As part of that budgeting process, a small group of residents whittled down 191 project ideas that were proposed at a community brainstorming meeting at the end of May. The group of budget delegates and the coalition used an Environmental Protection Agency criterion to determine if the projects were viable. 

“The projects had to be something that reduces environmental impacts, or reduces future pollution that can cause health problems,” Newberry said. “They also have to be located in highly impacted neighborhoods.”

Residents then identified an organization that could sponsor the project, secured its support and obtained a cost estimate for each project. The group then broke the ideas into four categories: green space improvements, energy enhancements, community action and citizen science and health. 

The project ideas include tree farms, an energy audit for local municipalities, the testing of soil and air, as well as allocating resources to those who live in the industrial neighborhood. 

“These are designed so when the money comes in, there will be a fast turn around with organizations that are shovel ready for the projects,” Newberry said. 

Voters who turn up to one of the many polls will receive the ballot, a photo and description of each idea and a letter of support from the organization that would sponsor it. 

“We feel that the projects that are on the ballot are for the betterment of the community as a whole,” budget delegate Jackie Erckert said. “This is our chance to be heard. People need to get out and vote. It is extremely important.” 

The tallying of the votes will take place at 7:30 p.m. at the Boys and Girls Club located at 54 Riverdale Road. 

Cast your Vote • Today, 9 a.m. to noon at St. Timothy's Church, 1453 Staley Road, Grand Island • Monday, 9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. at St. Timothy's Church, 1453 Staley Road, Grand Island - report to church secretary • Monday, 5 to 9 p.m., City Hall Community Room, 200 Niagara St. • Tuesday, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., Kenmore Municipal Building, 2919 Delaware Ave. • Wednesday, 12:30 to 1:30 p.m., Tonawanda Senior Center, 291 Ensminger Road • Wednesday, 3:30 to 7 p.m., Phatman Skate Shop, 2889 Sheridan Drive • Thursday, 7:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., North Tonawanda Farmers Market, Payne Avenue and Robinson Street • Thursday, 6 to 7 p.m., Boys and Girls Club, 54 Riverdale Road

Contact reporter Jessica Bagley at 693-1000, ext. 4150, or follow her on Twitter at @JessicaLBagley.