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Long Story Short: Smoke gets in our eyes


Illustration by JP Thimot


Choking coke smoke smote

It all started in 2004, with an orange Home Depot bucket with a tube jutting from its top. The end began last Monday.


Fourteen years is a long time for neighbors of Tonawanda Coke to wait to inhale. That’s how long Jackie James-Creedon, head of Citizen Science Community Resources, and the surrounding community, have been battling the 101-year-old plant, ever since James-Creedon used that Home Depot contraption to sample the toxic atmosphere outside Tonawanda Coke. After numerous air quality tests, inspections, lawsuits, courtroom battles, and intense scrutiny, the company collapsed under the weight of $25 million in fines and court-ordered environmental studies.


When exactly did it all end?

That depends on how you measure it. Last Monday the company charged the last oven. That was the beginning of the end, but the full process of shutting down continues. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation is onsite to oversee the process and monitor its safety.


But the shutdown might not be the final end. What we don’t know about are the toxins Tonawanda Coke is leaving behind as it walks away from the environmental mess it created over the last century. Western New York is dotted with sites where industry moved out, abandoning contaminants for future generations to discover.


Anything in particular?

There’s a six-inch-deep moat of oily liquid in Tonawanda Coke’s  byproduct work area. A rainstorm could cause it to overflow and pollute the Niagara River. Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper tweeted its concern with the following message: “TCC was intentionally ignoring potential overflow into the Niagara River and contamination of our community’s drinking water. This is outrageous, and the company’s owners should be held accountable for their disregard of human and environmental health.” And who knows what other surprises await future generations?


Then there are the displaced workers, another byproduct of the shutdown. Rebecca Newberry, of the Clean Air Coalition of WNY, wants a portion of the fines used to transition employees into new jobs, with money set aside for future environmental remediation. Meanwhile, Tonawanda Coke has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, claiming it doesn’t have the funds to pay its more than 100 creditors, much less the fines, and that the property poses a threat of imminent hazard to public health and safety. The Clean Air Coalition is calling for Tonawanda Coke's leaders and trustees to be held personally responsible for the company's debts, including worker pensions, medical monitoring, and site clean-up.



Town of Tonawanda officials are floating the idea that the Tonawanda Coke site would be just the place for a new Buffalo Bills football stadium. It’s never too soon after battling a hundred-year environmental disaster to think sports.   


But for the time being, people living in the shadow of Tonawanda Coke are celebrating a rare victory over big industry. Now that the battles are over, and the war is won, the surrounding community and everyone who depends on the Niagara river for water, enters the post toxin-war reconstruction years. For now, everyone can just stop and take a deep breath. No, really, they actually can now.



One hundred at 100

We have a new winner.


In the competition for philanthropist who made the largest single gift to Buffalo, it’s the late Ralph Wilson. He unseats Jeffrey Gundlach, by almost doubling that patron’s $52.5 million donation to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. Of course, Ralph Wilson is dead, which puts him in the category of people who donate their money after they are done using it.


Wilson’s donation of $100 million comes courtesy of the philanthropic foundation managed by his widow, Mary Wilson, which he established with a portion of his estate and the sale of the Buffalo Bills. The gift was announced on what would have been Wilson’s one-hundredth birthday. In fact, two $100M gifts were announced, one for his hometown, Detroit, and one for his adopted hometown, Buffalo.


In Buffalo, the money is earmarked for transforming LaSalle Park on the Lower West Side into a signature park, and to complete a regional trail system. Both will include endowments for ongoing maintenance—something often overlooked when building public attractions. Niagara River Greenway Commission executive director Gregory Stevens describes the gift as “Christmas in October.” The park will be designed with public input, with a goal of completion in three to four years. Gaps will be filled in the existing bike trail between Buffalo and Niagara Falls, with numerous amenities added along the way.


Go Wilson. His team never won the big one, but he went out a champion.



Speaking of bikes

Maybe you’re reading about the planned improvements to the Buffalo/Niagara bike trail, but you no longer have a bike because yours was stolen. If that’s the case, last Monday might have been your lucky day. That’s the day Buffalo Police raided a local home looking for narcotics. They found heroin, cocaine, marijuana, and a gun—you know, the usual. But get this; from there, the K-9 squad’s Officer Shield—yes, the dog that was formerly partnered with the late Craig Lehner—tracked a suspect to the basement of another house, where police found eighty-eight stolen bikes. All kinds: adult bikes, kid’s bikes, mountain bikes, street bikes, you name it.


Hopefully, you reported your stolen bike to the police. If not, you still can. But you need some means of proving a particular bike is yours. Maybe a serial number or a photo. The police will try to match your description to the bike. The bikes are being moved to the new Public Safety headquarters in the former Michael J. Dillon Memorial U.S. Courthouse on Court Street at Niagara Square, and that’s going to take months. No word on whether members of the public can come and view a bicycle lineup to identify theirs. 



O Canada, land of cannabis

If you live in, say, Austin Texas, the news that Canada just legalized recreational cannabis might be kind of a yawn. But you live in Buffalo, fifteen minutes away from a legal high, so you may be wondering what the rules are at the border. So here they are, in Q&A form:

Q. Can I go to Canada and purchase cannabis products for use there?  
A. Yes.

Q. Since I bought pot legally, can I bring it back over the border?
A. No

Q. How about if I have a medical prescription?
A. No

Q. But what if I…
A. No

Q. But
A. No

Q. Will they ask me about my past drug use?
A. They might.

Q. What should I say?
A. Three possibilities:
1. Well I’ve used pot, and cocaine, and um, amphetamines, but of course that was the eighties; everyone did, and I dabbled in meth, angel dust, mescaline, mushrooms, and LSD, but nothing serious.
2. I’ve never used any illegal drugs (which, if you’re lying, is a crime).
3. I don’t wish to answer that. Which is another way of saying, “Yes, I use drugs; what’s it to ya, copper?”

Q. Okay, then if I’m not bringing any pot over the border, what shouldn’t I do when crossing?
A. Wear a Grateful Dead T-shirt.‚Äč

Q. Anything else I shouldn’t do?
A. Don’t have packages of opened snack foods on the seat next to you.

Q. Why?
A. Because the border police know you’re going to Canada to get stoned; why else would you spend a day in Fort Erie, Ontario? And if they even suspect that you might be bringing some back, they will pull you over and tear your car apart, and subject you to a strip search, and if they find anything, they’ll throw you in a border internment camp quicker than if you were part of a caravan coming from South America.

Q. Really?
A. No. What are you, paranoid? They’ll just fine you up to $500 and take away your pot. 



Something terrible, with a silver lining

A North Buffalo African-American family was the victim of a racially-motivated hate crime last Saturday. Their minivan was broken into, the contents looted, the tires slashed, and racial epitaphs scratched into the paint. Jacquelyn Archie and her husband David Washington had some Christmas presents for their four kids in the van. They were stolen except for a black superhero action doll. The vandals took clothes belonging to the family and cut them into pieces. As a final hateful touch, they scratched “MAGA” into the hood of the vehicle, which, as we all know, proudly stands for “Make America Great Again.”


Well, guess what: America is already great, at least the people here in Buffalo (except for hateful vandals and other assholes of their sort). Neighbors of the family, and others, were shocked and disgusted by the act. The story went viral after Washington wrote about it in a Facebook post, and the family has been inundated with offers to pay for the car damage, and more. A North Buffalo Facebook group is collecting replacement toys and clothes. There have also been words of support, reassuring the family that they are welcome and wanted in the neighborhood. A classmate of one of the children made a condolence card, with a pledge of $8 dollars to “buy a new car.”


Take that, hate.



Don't take your guns to town

Each state has its own laws governing the purchase and use of firearms. Whatever your views of those laws, you can’t fault law-abiding citizens who responsibly follow them. That is until they make the careless mistake of crossing state lines. Unfortunately, one young man learned this lesson the hard way in Western New York. It could have been a lot worse though, if not for a judge with compassion.


The details:

Eighteen-year old Simeon Brovont lives in Idaho with his family, members of the Old German Baptist Brethren, a religious group a bit like the Amish. Last June, he made a cross-country pilgrimage to a spiritual retreat in Indiana. There he met people from Wyoming County, who invited him to visit. While he was in the region, he stopped to check out Niagara Falls. When he heard about the Thunder Over Niagara Air Show, he decided that too would be fun.


Fun it was not

Brovont owns a.22-caliber handgun that he purchased legally in Idaho, which was sitting unloaded in his back seat when he arrived by car at the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station parking lot. His vehicle was chosen for a random inspection, and when a New York State trooper asked if he had any weapons, he reported the gun.  


Then all hell broke loose.  


Brovont was arrested and charged with possession of an unlicensed handgun in New York without a pistol permit. Authorities called a bomb squad to search the man’s car. The air show gun arrest made all the papers and television news. It was even added to the online Gun Violence Archive.


Because his parents were unable to raise his $20,000 bail, Brovont spent four months in Niagara County Jail while awaiting trial and the possibility of a felony conviction that would follow him for the rest of his life. On September 11, he pled guilty to a reduced charge of attempted second-degree criminal possession of a weapon, a felony that could result in a sentence of up to seven years in state prison.


Judge Sara Sheldon exhibits common sense

On October 11, Judge Sheldon refused the Niagara County District Attorney’s request for “some level of incarceration” for Brovont. In fact, the judge said, “I think he pled to too high a felony. This was a stupid, careless mistake.” It’s likely that Brovont was never happier to be called stupid, because the judge wiped his slate clean by granting him youthful offender status. No record. “I see a history of a young man from a good family who’s never done anything wrong,” the judge said. “I just don’t have the heart to pile on. This is not a dangerous young man.” Four months in Niagara County Jail among federal prisoners was enough punishment.


The takeaway:

If you’re like me, you’re picturing a pallid and pious teen-ager caught in an unfortunate situation initiated by an unintentional blunder. Calling a bomb squad probably seems like overkill under the circumstances. And what bad luck being caught in a “random inspection.” You may even wonder why all that jail time necessary.


Consider this: Brovont was adopted by his parents. He’s African-American. To the trooper, he was a black man driving alone in a 2003 Toyota Corolla. Is it just me, or did the picture just change?


If you would like to help the Brovont family cover their legal fees, here’s their gofundme page.



Long Story Short is an opinion column by artist and educator Bruce Adams, a longtime contributor to Buffalo Spree.


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