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Local institutions rehabilitate Tonawanda Coke owner’s image as the state considers public subsidies for developer who bought polluted site

The now-shuttered Tonawanda Coke facility, photo courtesy of Clean Air Coalition of Western New York

Rich and powerful people whose wealth and influence derive from exploitation have long used philanthropy as a type of reputational laundering service to justify their profiting from injustice. This phenomenon has resulted in recent high-profile clashes at elite arts institutions in New York City, which we have written about here.

The same dynamic is also at play in Buffalo, perhaps best evidenced by Paul Saffrin, the former owner of the now-bankrupt Tonawanda Coke and Erie Coke companies, who sits on the board of trustees of Explore & More, a children’s museum in downtown Buffalo, and Daemen College, a liberal arts school in Amherst.

For generations, Tonawanda Coke spewed carcinogenic pollution, created by processing coal into fuel for steel manufacturing, into its surrounding neighborhood. The company racked up stacks of violations from state and federal regulators until finally declaring bankruptcy and shutting down in 2018, claiming that it could not pay criminal fines imposed for its pollution. Erie Coke, a sister facility in Pennsylvania also owned by Saffrin and beset by violations, closed abruptly in December 2020, less than a week before Christmas. Workers’ arriving for their shifts were turned away and told that they no longer had jobs.

Saffrin’s dirty businesses put him in conflict with the communities he polluted, environmental justice organizations, and governmental regulators. For years, the Clean Air Coalition of Western New York has worked with impacted Tonawanda residents to get the coke plant shut down and to hold Saffrin accountable for the impacts of his operations. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, and the United States Department of Justice have all cited Tonawanda Coke for environmental and worker safety violations.

According to Good Jobs First, Tonawanda Coke has received $37,087,232 in penalties from the federal government from 2000 through 2016. The largest of those was a total of $24.7 million in fines for the company’s 2013 criminal conviction on 11 counts of violating the Clean Air Act and three counts of violating the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.

Erie Coke has received $8,934,384 in federal penalties in the same time period.

College and museum donations buy positive press

Amid his fights with the community and government, Saffrin made a pair of $1 million donations in late 2016 from his family foundation to Daemen College and Explore & More. These donations generated positive local press and earned him seats on the institutions’ respective boards of trustees.

Neither the press release from Daemen College nor Explore & More extolling Saffrin’s donations mentioned the source of his money. In a particularly Orwellian twist, Daemen also named its Center for Sustainable Communities and Civic Engagement after the embattled coal CEO, and Explore & More attached Saffrin’s name to its “Being Good Neighbors” exhibit. When Saffrin made his large donations to the two institutions in November and December 2016, Tonawanda Coke had been issued $193,500 in federal penalties for environmental and worker safety violations in that year alone.

Saffrin’s seats on the Daemen College and Explore & More boards of trustees put him in the company of Western New York’s corporate and social elite. In these spaces, Saffrin can network, build influence, and be seen with executives at key institutions – like banks, law firms, and major employers – that play an important role in setting regional policy.

At Daemen College, Saffin – now the vice chair of the board – serves alongside John Yurtchuk, the owner of military and aerospace contractor Calspan, real estate developer Mark Chason, Roswell Park President Candace Johnson, lobbyist and former Congressman Tom Reynolds, M&T Bank Regional President Jeffrey Wellington, and Univera Healthcare President Art Wingerter. Other board members include partners at elite area law firms such as Richard Day of Hiscock and Barclay, Terrence Gilbride of Hodgson Russ, Scott Friedman of Lippes Mathias Wexler Friedman.

Saffrin’s fellow trustees at Explore & More include Kaleida Health Chief Information Security Officer Kevin Gilbert, Rich Products Vice President Dwight Gram, M&T Bank Vice President Jarod Haslinger, CEO of Chase Business Banking Andrew Kresse, KeyBank Senior Banker Peter Leonard, and Delaware North Senior Vice President Matthew Wagner.

Saffrin pays himself through his family charity

In addition to making large, politically expedient donations to Daemen and Explore & More, Saffrin also gives generously to himself through his family foundation.

Filings with the Internal Revenue Service and New York State Attorney General show that in the fiscal years immediately after the 2014 death of Saffrin’s grandfather, former Tonawanda Coke and Erie Coke owner J.D. Crane, the Crane Family Foundation (which was re-named the Paul A. Saffrin Foundation) started paying Saffrin for his service on its board of directors. Saffrin collected $37,500 for two hours of work per week in 2015, $42,500 in 2016, $42,000 in 2017, and $45,000 in 2018.

Saffrin’s most recent rate of pay from his family charity was more than $432 per hour.

Payments such as these to directors of a non-profit foundation are generally prohibited under IRS rules, unless the compensation is a non-excessive payment to provide personal services that are reasonable and necessary to carry out the foundation’s charitable purpose. But, as the Buffalo News noted in 2018, Saffrin does not appear to manage the foundation’s investments, its books, or its legal affairs, and it is unclear what work, if any, he does to earn his salary.

Brownfield designation puts polluted communities on the hook for Saffrin’s pollution

Following Tonawanda Coke’s bankruptcy, the contaminated plant site was sold to Jon Williams, a Buffalo businessman who has made a business of using state subsidies to redevelop polluted industrial land.

Williams plans to take advantage of New York’s brownfield redevelopment tax credits to turn the coke plant property into a data center, which has drawn public outcry from Clean Air Coalition and other organizations and individuals in the community. The Clean Air Coalition has sought a federal Superfund designation for the site, which would require Saffrin and Honeywell – the corporate successor to the plant’s original owner – to foot the bill for remediation.

Clean Air Coalition petitioned the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to hold a public hearing on Williams’ application for brownfield designation for the former Tonawanda Coke facility, but the state refused. The coalition held its own hearing on January 15, towards the end of the public comment period on the application.

If his application is approved, Williams will be able to use public subsidies to turn the Tonawanda Coke property into a revenue-generating business. With responsibility for cleaning up his mess transferred to the community he polluted for years, Saffrin will be able to continue paying himself out of his $9.5 million foundation and rubbing elbows with the local power elite at Daemen and Explore & More board meetings, fundraisers, and social events.