Clean Air Coalition of Western New York

Clean Air Helps Create a $45 million New York State fund for Coal Community Transition

An Interview with Rebecca Newberry, Executive Director of Clean Air Coalition of Western New York

Talk to us about your organization and community:

Since 2009, Clean Air has organized to protect public health and environmental justice. We engage in a number of strategies to build power and win concrete changes in the lives of our members.  We envision a world where our environment promotes health and equity, and where communities are actively engaged in decisions that impact their lives.

How is Clean Air working to help your community make a just transition away from coal toward a new economy?

For decades, people, including our members, who live and work in the Town of Tonawanda, have both benefited from and had to bear the costs of burning coal. The plant generated power, provided union jobs, and was the Town’s largest tax provider. It was the county’s largest polluter and was located in a neighborhood with high concentrations of cancer and illness. In 2014, Clean Air worked with Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis to conduct analysis, issue a report, and make the case to local decision-makers that plant was losing money and was at risk of retirement.

Our members are school teachers and town employees—their children and grandchildren attend the schools. Our members rely on Town services and enjoy the parks, community pools, community centers, and libraries. These same members faced—and would continue to face—a dramatic impact to the quality of those services. We chose to lead a movement in partnership with the Western New York Area Labor Federation, ALF-CIO, the Kenmore-Tonawanda Teachers Association (New York State United Teachers affiliate) to develop and resource a just transition in Tonawanda, New York. Nearly 1,500 residents, plant workers and school teachers have been involved in this process to date.

Since starting this work, what has Clean Air been able to accomplish?

Once we had a guiding framework in place, we got to work organizing. We led a door-to-door canvass in neighborhoods closest to the plant to learn from residents about how the company’s retirement would affect them. We held monthly community workshops to discuss residents’ concerns about the plant retirement. We held community strategy sessions and educational briefings with local elected officials and decision makers. We also registered a lot of people to vote. To date, we’ve:

  • Protected teachers, schools, and residents. The closure of the plant resulted in a $6.2M cut to the Town and School     District through the loss of tax revenue. This cut put over 100 jobs of local teachers, support staff, and town employees at risk. We replaced the revenue with The Electric Generation Facility Cessation Mitigation Program; a $45M New York State fund that provides temporary support to the town and school district, and gives the municipality time to make up the lost revenue, and preserves jobs.
  • Supported workers: Out of the 75 union jobs at the plant, not one person filed for unemployment. All were given negotiated packages with the company, or transferred internally.
  • Launched economic development process: We began a long-term, resident-driven economic development planning process through the support of the US Economic Development Agency’s Power+ Plan. A collaborative planning     process has begun to grow the Town’s economy in a way that prioritizes community health and resident and worker priorities.
  • Ensured site clean up: Together, Clean Air members, organized labor, and town leadership have initiated the process of holding NRG accountable to take responsibility for site clean-up, and are making sure that a harmful brownfield that will detract from the town’s future is not left behind and neglected.