Advocates guarded about new pact with Tonawanda Coke

Tonawanda, NY – The Tonawanda Coke plant has agreed to lower its benzene emissions by two thirds over the next year.

That is according to United States Environmental Protection Agency and New York State department of Environmental Conservation officials who were in Tonawanda Wednesday to announce a new agreement signed with the company.

Over the past four years, the EPA and or the DEC have taken action at the plant no less than fifteen times. That includes joint administrative orders, inspections, citations for violations - and even a slew of of federal civil and criminal charges.

Those cases are still pending in court a year and a half later.

But EPA Regional Administrator Judith Enck said this new agreement is an important step in reducing a dangerous toxin.

"I'm very concerned about what people are breathing, and they've been breathing this for a long time," said Enck. "That doesn't mean this is the only thing we are doing. We're continuing our enforcement work. But on this order, in a fairly short amount of time, we got them to agree to a two thirds reduction in benzene by the end of 2012."

She said if the company walks away from the agreement there are other enforcement measures that can be taken by the EPA.

Erin Heaney is Executive Director of the Clean Air Coalition of Western New York, the group that initially pushed the EPA and DEC into action. Heaney said they are hopeful - but wary.

"We had a press conference a couple weeks ago because there were still odor complaints and strong smoke and people were seeing fires low at the property," said Heaney. "I know that our residents are going to say, o.k., I'll believe it when I see it, and so that's what we're looking for. It's not going to happen over night."

She added, "We're going to have to stay on the plant, report order violations. Yeah, I don't think we ever want to wave a flag and say we've won, there's still a lot of work to be done, but we've got to celebrate the little victories when we have them."

Two federal grants also were awarded by the EPA. The Clean Air Coalition will receive $100,000 to develop a community-wide response to pollution problems in the town.

A $130,000 grant will be used for technical improvements to help eight other Tonawanda businesses reduce their pollution. The project will be conducted in partnership with the New York State Pollution Prevention Institute, at RIT in Rochester.