Tonawanda News — A slew of local, state and federal politicians met in the shadow of the Tonawanda Coke plant on Friday to send an urgent message to the thousands of residents who may have been affected by decades of exposure to pollutants from the business: Make your voices heard.
The reminder was related to two looming deadlines to submit impact statements to U.S. Federal Court Judge William M. Skretny, who is set to determine who will receive up to $220 million in fines related to the plant’s violations of the Clean Air Act over many years.
Jackie James-Creedon led the grassroots charge toward bringing the plant’s illegalities to light and founded the Clean Air Coalition credited with organizing hundreds of neighborhood residents who pushed for a remedy to high levels of benzene released into surrounding homes and businesses. She said getting people to submit their stories to federal authorities could go a long way toward the healing process — both as a community hamstrung by the quality of its air and water and for the future potential to make their lives healthier.
“A few years ago a few of my neighbors and I became citizen scientists and collected an air sample not far from here because our air stunk and we considered if this was why so many of us were sick,” she said. “We can’t turn back the hands of time and change what has already been done, but we will persevere together and make our community a better place to live, work and play.”
U.S. Rep. Brian Higgins said it was through the efforts of those who live near the plant, in the Tonawandas and on Grand Island, that a conviction was ultimately handed down against plant manager Mark Kamholz and the company itself. And it is the activists themselves and those who have yet to speak out who may be able determine their own future.
“Now we are asking for those who have paid the price in terms of health and hardship to come forward again and be heard as the legal system weighs penalties associated with the crime against this community.”
Where the benefits of those penalties go and what they’re used for may be determined through feedback sent to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, due for submittal by June 14 and involving restitution claims for residents who suffered through economic loss.
Another deadline for impact statements from community members who may have been harmed would be used by Skretny during sentencing and could influence the amount and designation of the fines, according to officials. The deadline for those submissions is July 1.
“While the media has reported on the air quality studies, the trial and the community concerns, the stories of individuals and their families have for the most part remained in the background,” said Assemblyman Robin Schimminger. “Now is the time for these silent witnesses to share their experiences with the judge, who will determine the price Tonawanda Coke must pay for its criminal actions.”
Tonawanda Supervisor Anthony Caruana said the community’s reputation has been damaged by the discovery of widespread pollution, though efforts are being made to fix the problems of not only the plant, but the surrounding industrial area as well as the heavily trafficked highways that continue to exist along the Niagara River.
“Many people think that Tonawanda Coke is synonymous with the Town of Tonawanda,” he said. “We have already lost potential new businesses and new residents because of this association.”
For specific information on how to submit an impact statement or restitution claim go to justice.gov/usau/nyw or write Sharon Knope at U.S. Attorney’s Office, 138 Delaware Ave., Buffalo, NY, 14202.
The Tonawanda Community Fund, started by James-Creedon, can also assist with the process by calling 873-6197 or via e-mail at email@example.com.Contact reporter Michael Regan at 693-1000, ext. 4115.