TOWN OF TONAWANDA — Local environmentalists picketed outside of the DuPont Yerkes plant on Thursday, arriving just ahead of several elected officials who were invited to tour the site throughout the morning.
The facility on Sheridan Drive mainly manufactures Corian for use in countertops and other materials, and was recently granted a $550,000 tax credit through Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s greater statewide economic stimulus plan designed to promote job creation.
Activists, however, pointed to the fact that it is also the site of a fatal explosion in 2010 in which federal officials found plant managers at fault when flammable vapors weren’t cleared from a chemical tank prior to welding.
According to Erin Heaney of the Clean Air Coalition, the Environmental Protection Agency also fined the plant $165,000 in May for violations of the Clear Air Act.
“Gov. Cuomo must stop subsidizing corporate polluters. It’s inexcusable to give away our tax dollars to a company that violated the Clean Air Act as recently as six months ago,” said Heaney, who organized the 10 a.m. protest.
Union officials have also taken issue with the fact that the tax credit, designed to promote new business and jobs at the plant, comes as management has announced its intention to lay off six union workers.
A statement from Plant Manager Ronald Lee, however, makes clear a “substantial investment is in the works” at the plant.
“At our invitation, a number of elected officials, their staff members, business neighbors and community members visited DuPont Yerkes today to see and hear about how our Corian and Tedlar business units are working to sustain the future of our site and Western New York,” Lee said in a written statement to the News.
“In particular, we wanted them to know that the DuPont company’s recent substantial investment in our Tonawanda site is evidence of the company’s confidence in our workforce. This investment made it possible to install new equipment here to manufacture Corian Private Collection, a product that was previously made in Ulsan, Korea.”
State Assemblyman Robin Schimminger, D-Kenmore, was one of the officials invited to tour the plant Thursday, and said he and others including state Sen. George Maziarz, R-Newfane, were told of the plans to retain workers at the plant.
He said a product line of countertops now made in Korea called “Private Collections” is expensive to ship to large markets in the U.S. and that the company hopes to begin manufacturing products for that line in Tonawanda.
Officials, however, were not promised the move would create new jobs.
“Part of the reason for incentives is, in addition to jobs, it’s investment,” Schimminger, who supports tax credits for the plant through the state’s Excelsior program, said. “When we have a chance to bring jobs to the USA from Korea, I think we should all be pulling in the same direction.”
Jim Briggs, of the local United Steel Workers union, whose bargaining unit represents roughly 400 workers at the plant, said his unit largely agrees with the Clean Air Coalition, especially over citicisms of employee safety protocols.
He said cutting corners is not uncommon at the plant, and that employees “had to fight management” to rectify a propane leak a short time after the explosion that killed a subcontractor.
“Workers are getting killed and people think that place is operated safely and it’s not. Management cuts corners every day and what happened is they got caught in one of those cuts,” Briggs, whose unit is currently in negotiations, said.
Of the company’s safety policies, he said: “They’re really good at portraying it, just not living up to it.”
“This is a company that clearly needs help,” said Roger Cook, of the pollution prevention group represented during Thursday’s protest. “It’s exposing its workers to very toxic chemicals.”
Germain Harnden, of the council on occupational safety, claimed DuPont, as a policy, doesn’t include workers’ input in formulating safety protocols, an issue she said can contribute to hazards at the plants.
“When you don’t have worker input, accidents happen,” she said.
On the subject of labor, Allison Duwe, of the coalition for economic justice, joined protesters and said whether the company adds or retains jobs using state tax credits, closer scrutiny is needed prior to approval. She said use of temporary workers at the plant, as well as the alleged safety issues, works against the fundamental benefit of good-paying jobs.
Schimminger said he wasn’t aware of any specifics of the alleged environmental violations at DuPont, which Heaney said have occurred for three consecutive years.
“We want to assure the community that environmental stewardship is a DuPont core value which we take very seriously,” Lee wrote. “Those with specific concerns about our site should bring them directly to us so that we can address them properly.”
Heaney said the plant is responsible for up to 20 percent of emissions in Erie County, and uses known carcinogens in its processes, including vinyl flouride — the vapors from which ignited, triggering the explosion that killed the subcontractor.
“Economic development dollars should not be given away to companies that are chronic polluters,” she said before cheers erupted from others on hand, with the Western New York Council on Occupational Safety, the Coalition for Economic Justice and the New York State Pollution Prevention Institute.
Contact city editor Neale Gulley at 693-1000, ext. 4114