Tonawanda News — TOWN OF TONAWANDA — In less than a month, Judge William Skretny will have the authority to sentence Tonawanda Coke and its environmental manager, Mark Kamholz, to pay more than $200 million in fines for violating the Clean Air Act and the Resource Recovery and Conservation Act.
Whether Skretny will impose any fines, and whether he will order those funds to go back to the community, will remain unknown until the scheduled sentencing date of July 15.
But if Skretny does respond to politicians’ and activists’ calls to keep the money local, residents will be ready.
On Thursday, the Clean Air Coalition concluded a community poll on how to spend the potential fines with a celebratory tally at the town’s Boy and Girls Club on Riverdale Avenue.
The event has been in the works since the end of March, when a federal jury found the River Road coke-making facility guilty of emitting cancer-causing toxins into the air and land.
Over the past week, more than 560 people reported to 12 different locations to review possible environmental projects and vote for the ones they felt were most deserving. Voters, who were able to choose five projects, were given a ballot booklet at the polls that provided descriptions for 15 different proposals.
“Residents brainstormed many projects 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,” a statement from the nonprofit reads.
The coalition used a participatory budgeting practice that originated in Brazil to guide the voting process. Rebecca Newberry, a Clean Air organizer, said participatory budgeting 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 process, a small group of residents used an Environmental Protection Agency criterion to whittle down 191 project ideas that were proposed at a community brainstorming meeting at the end of May.
“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.”
A pollution prevention project secured the most votes, with 260. The project would cost $250,000 and would help manufacturers in the Tonawandas, Grand Island, and Riverside reduce toxic chemical use, emissions and waste.
The creation of a community environmental health institute came in second, with 236 votes. The institute’s work would be targeted at improving the health of Western New York residents affected by air pollution through research, prevention and training. The cost of creating the institute would total $15 million.
The Wickwire Park redevelopment project secured 217 votes and would cost $4 million. The proposal details the purchase and renovation of the 40-acre site along the Niagara River, aimed at providing waterfront access, job creation and alternative energy generation. The project would cost $4 million.
Newberry said the coalition will send the voting results and project descriptions to the EPA, U.S. Justice Department and Skretny.
The tallying event was attended by many activists who spent years fighting against the River Road company, as well as local politicians, including City of Tonawanda Mayor Ron Pilozzi and Town of Tonawanda Supervisor Anthony Caruana.
Prior to the tally announcement, volunteers who led the polling process chanted “this is what democracy looks like,” and William Yelder, of the coalition, spoke in support of the community’s leadership.
“What I’m really excited about is what Tonawanda has done,” he said. “What you were told you can’t do, what you have been through, well, you are leading the way in Western New York in taking control of your community.”The top 10 projects were: • Pollution prevention project: 260 votes • Environmental health institute: 236 votes • Wickwire Park project: 217 votes • Health study: 209 votes • Tonawanda tree farm: 209 votes • Relocation fund: 197 votes • Endowment: 192 votes • Worker toxic exposure education: 163 votes • Riverside Park tree project: 111 votes • Energy audit for the town: 90 votes • Black Rock, Riverside garden: 80 votes Contact reporter Jessica Bagley at 693-1000 ext. 4150, or follow her on Twitter at @JessicaLBagley