Here's what we know: The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation wants Tonawanda Coke to shut down because of persistent air pollution problems. What we don't know is if the plant will shut down Aug. 4 or if an appeal will keep it open.
The plant has been an air quality sore point for years, as it turns coal into coke, mostly for steel-making. There have been particular problems this year because of the collapse of a tunnel, key to the air pollution control system inside the Town of Tonawanda plant.
Dozens of people showed up Monday night for a meeting at the Brounshidle American Legion Post in the town sponsored by the Clean Air Coalition. One speaker was Nellie Brown, director of the Workplace Health and Safety Program for Cornell University's Worker Institute. Asked about plant air pollution, Brown said workers wear respirators.
"They're wearing flame-retardant clothing, which is specially laundered, so there are known practices that protect them, along with the engineering controls that run the operating oven and maintain it," Brown said. "But for those people who are living downwind, the assumption is that by the time the air reaches them whatever is emitted, it should have been diluted."
Tonawanda Coke has been battling with the courts and with regulators for years because of the pollution. Residents blame the plant for a variety of health problems, because of the pollution, including chemicals like benzene with a proven connection to brain cancer. Recent crackdowns have forced changes, enough that carcinogen benzene levels are down 92 percent in Tonawanda.
Tonawanda Town Engineer James Jones was there because of other kinds of pollution.
"They do have a permit to discharge to the stormwater system and the sanitary sewer system and it's always a challenge to ensure that those discharges are compliant," Jones said. "And with this type of operation, it's very difficult for them to reinvest back into the plant, to make sure those regulatory aspects are in check."
At least one person at the meeting said there needs to be a balance between air pollution control and jobs, since closing Tonawanda Coke would cost hundreds of workers good union wage jobs with high pay, benefits and pensions. Craig Spears from the Buffalo Labor Council said there has to be a balance between jobs and the environment.
"There is a balancing act and that has to be a very carefully gauged balance, too," Spears said, "because you do not want to go to the point where the plant shuts down, those jobs are permanently lost and then you have hundreds of millions of dollars in cleanup costs that won't be covered by the company."