Shutting a Coal Plant and Reviving a Small Town Economy in Tonawanda, New York
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This podcast miniseries, “Just Transition in Action,” shares perspectives and insights from people around the world to illustrate what we’ve learned about how to shift toward a net-zero economy without leaving any workers or communities behind.
Today’s episode takes us to Tonawanda, New York, where declining tax revenues from the Huntley coal plant forced the town to close public schools and reduce other community services. Now, the community is pioneering a sustainable economic plan that aims to breathe new life into the small town.
"This coalition got to work, and started to rally for a just transition for the workers, but also tried to get a transition fund put in place for power plants, because it wasn't just our area that is facing closure of power plants. Coal power plants, are expensive, and they're not profitable, on top of the fossil fuel and carbon footprint they create. So that was able, I think, to get other legislators on board, seeing that the writing was on the wall."
– Bill Conrad, New York State Assemblymember for District 140
"I was really moved by meeting members who were a lot like my family, trying to make decisions between paying for health bills versus, making mortgage payments or rent payments … And so we pulled together four community assemblies and basically said, you know, if this thing closes, who do we need to take care of, and how do we take care of them?"
– Rebecca Nowatchik (Newberry), Northeast Regional Program Manager, BlueGreen Alliance
"People want dignified work, and so as we are transitioning away from fossil fuels and towards a greener economy, what are we doing to take care of workers and to make sure that those plants are fully remediated so that when we’re ready to implement green energy solutions, that sites across the country are taken care of, that people are receiving family-sustaining wages, and that folks are trained for what comes next, so that nobody gets left behind."
– Emily Terrana, Environmental Justice Organizer, Clean Air Coalition of Western New York
"In Tonawanda, New York, the situation is one that actually we find in a number of places around the world, that the issue is not only a question of lost jobs, but also one of the economic spillover effects in an area and what the impacts on local revenues would be."
– David Waskow, Director, International Climate Initiative, WRI
- The Closure of the Huntley Generating Station and Community-led Efforts for a Prosperous Future
- Tonawanda Tomorrow: Town of Tonawanda Economic Action Plan
- Tonawanda Again Pursues Eminent Domain Takeover of Huntley Generating Station Site
- Lessons for When the Power Plant in Your Town Closes
Nicholas Walton 00:05
Hello and welcome to this Big Ideas Into Action podcast from the World Resources Institute. And this episode is part of a special series on just transition, and dealing with impacts from the shift to a low-carbon economy on people and their communities. In this episode, when a coal-fired power plant closed in the U.S., what happened to the community that depended upon it for funding and for jobs, and what opportunities opened up?
Bill Conrad 00:30
We laid off upwards of 100 and something teachers … anything that could be cut or wasn't mandated, was looked at to be eliminated.
Rebecca Newberry 00:38
… trying to make decisions between paying for health bills versus, making mortgage payments or rent payments.
Emily Terrana 00:45
I live less than a mile away from the plant, and I would really love to be able to take a walk there with my kids and, and have, you know, park access and put our feet in the water.
Nicholas Walton 00:57
Hello and welcome to a special WRI podcast miniseries focusing on just transition. I’m Nicholas Walton, and in this series we’re looking at the impacts on people’s lives as countries and communities worldwide are working to shift away from fossil fuels. In this episode we’re in the United States, where a coal-fired power plant was a mainstay of a local community, providing money, jobs and energy. So what happened when it closed? Here’s my colleague Molly Bergen of WRI’s climate team.
Molly Bergen 01:26
For decades the Huntley power plant sat overlooking the Niagara River in Tonawanda, right on the border between the United States and Canada. The power plant didn’t just provide energy; it was a big source of tax revenues for Tonawanda’s public services. It was also the area’s largest polluter — and like all coal power, a big contributor to climate change. A few years ago, as coal became increasingly unprofitable, the plant began to reduce power generation. That meant less pollution, but also less money for local residents.
Bill Conrad 01:55
It was the biggest tax payer in the region. Before they had paid close to maybe $15 million, upwards of $20 million, the school system being the largest recipient, probably about half if not more of that money.
Molly Bergen 02:07
This is Bill Conrad, a former high school social studies teacher who’s now a local politician.
Bill Conrad 02:12
And then they had reduced it to about $6 million. And then the financial disaster of 2008 on top of it, there were some severe cuts in the school system. We laid off upwards of 100 and something teachers, my cousin being one of them. It wasn't just teachers, it was support staff, it was psychologists, social workers. I mean, anything that could be cut or wasn't mandated was looked at to be eliminated. We'd gotten rid of so much. And that meant bigger classrooms, less classes available, less electives, it would basically devastate I think a pretty good public education system in the area.
Molly Bergen 02:51
So what they had in Tonawanda was a power plant that may have been polluting, but was also the source of vital local tax revenues. As it began to close down the loss of revenues led to the closure of three of Tonawanda’s public schools. And in 2015 the Huntley plant announced it would shutter for good in just seven months, meaning that the rest of the money the plant had brought to the town would soon dry up too. Bill started talking with his teachers’ union and other local groups to think throughwhat to do next.
Bill Conrad 03:19
This coalition got to work, and started to rally for a just transition for the workers,but also tried to get a transition fund put in place for power plants, because it wasn't just our area that is facing closure of power plants. Coal power plants, are expensive, and they're not profitable — on top of the fossil fuel and carbon footprint they create. So that was able, I think, to get other legislators on board, seeing that the writing was on the wall.
Molly Bergen 03:49
From Bill and his fellow teachers to the United Steelworkers Union, this coalition brought together a range of groups who all wanted the same thing: to make sure that the plant’s closing would be a net benefit for the town.
Bill Conrad 04:01
We had folks from labor, from — you know, from veterans to hard hats, was at the table. I thought it was like catching lightning in a bottle because you don’t tend to get those folks on the same page at all. This was a bipartisan effort. Any community, it doesn't matter if it's Republican or Democrat, that is going to lose that kind of funding, is going to have devastating effects on the local government.
Molly Bergen 04:21
When these discussions began, Rebecca Newberry was the executive director of the Clean Air Coalition of Western New York; she’s now with the BlueGreen Alliance.
Rebecca Newberry 04:30
I was really moved by meeting members who were a lot like my family, trying to make decisions between paying for health bills versus making mortgage payments or rent payments. They're definitely impacted by environmental pollution and hazardous waste.
And so we pulled together four community assemblies and basically said, you know, if this thing closes, who do we need to take care of, and how do we take care of them? And so we did a lot of research on what could be feasible, we looked into the New York State Budget, we held numerous trainings for our people on how the budget works. We looked further into, you know, different pots of money that could potentially fund that fund. In 2016, when the company announced closure, we were ready, and so the fund was born.
Molly Bergen 05:15
After months of surveys and meetings to get input from the community, the town released the Tonawanda Tomorrow economic plan. The aim wasto revitalize the town’s economy, to attract new climate-friendly industries to bring in new tax revenue, andto create well-paying jobs. Here’s Bill Conrad.
Bill Conrad 05:33
You know, you're not going to make everyone happy. But we were able to put together I thought, some really meaningful ideas and goals that we were able to accomplish. They're putting up LED lights now, trees to parks, and our bike path, the rails to trail … One of the things we got, we won a grant through our clean energy community and solarized project, trying to restabilize old buildings and keep their historic value, but at the same time, trying to update and make things more energy efficient when we have new builds. We had all of our building inspectors trained in the green code, and also solar panel installation, and anything we can do to kind of make our residents’ electric bills and heating bills and everything go down. You're starting to see us have conversations about how do we slow cars in our community. Because we're starting to realize that, you know, this was built for cars, these suburbias, and we need to be a strong town, that means walkability, what I call a 15-minute community where you can get anywhere in 15 minutes in your community by walking. Which also means health. Every topic is on the table.
Nicholas Walton 06:37
You’re listening to a special WRI podcast series on just transition.
Molly Bergen 06:43
After the Huntley plant closed in 2016, its 93 acres of waterfront property sat idle as the company and the town tried to decide what to do with it.
Emily Terrana 06:52
It's on the river, people want to enjoy the beautiful waterfront.
Molly Bergen 06:57
Emily Terrana is the environmental justice organizer at Clean Air.
Emily Terrana 07:01
I live less than a mile away from the plant, and I would really love to be able to take a walk there with my kids and, and have, you know, park access and put our feet in the water. But what happens next, we need to have like a very major shift in what public officials and agencies see as the priority. Is it you know, additional profit? Or is it … can we have both? Can we have tax incentives and tax revenue that also centers the community's vision?
And there are a lot of really interesting, wacky ideas of what to do with the plant. There are people who want to turn it into housing and into an ice rink, there's this constant western New York dream of it being a Bills Stadium.
Molly Bergen 07:46
The closing of the Huntley power plant — plus the recent demolition of the nearby Tonawanda coke plant — marks an important shift in a place long plagued by health issues connected to local industry. Here’s Rebecca again.
Rebecca Newberry 07:58
Tonawanda used to have the highest level of air pollution from industrial sources in the state of New York and some of the highest levels of cancers, particularly lymphomas, and other rare types of cancers. And we don't know if that is true or not anymore. But we do know, over the past 10 years we've seen significant reductions in the chemical benzene specifically. And also VOCs and particulate matter in general.
Molly Bergen 08:28
Tonawanda is working to transform itselffrom a polluted industrial towninto a place where jobs and income help fight climate change while providing other long-term benefits for residents. Emily Terrana.
Emily Terrana 08:40
People want dignified work, and so as we are transitioning away from fossil fuels and towards a greener economy, what are we doing to take care of workers and to make sure that those plants are fully remediated so that when we’re ready to implement green energy solutions, that sites across the country are taken care of, that people are receiving family-sustaining wages, and that folks are trained for what comes next, so that nobody gets left behind.
Molly Bergen 09:09
When Huntley closed, the workers still employed there all retired or transferred to other facilities. But as more places phase out coal-fired power completely, like New York State did in 2020, fossil fuel workers and younger generations must be able to transition to new careers as new opportunities in the local economy open up. Bill Conrad.
Bill Conrad 09:29
I think that you can't do it alone. You got to work with folks that you maybe had been adversarial with. And it was amazing to have the managers and the unions at the same table, becausethings were at stake. It might have to be bipartisan, and this is a very partisan world right now. Don't be afraid to try, don't be afraid to fail. I know we won because the town residents keep asking for a new hockey rink. And I’m not kidding when I say that, like — you knew you won because they never felt the pain. We completely averted it.
Molly Bergen 09:57
Tonawanda’s transition is still a work in progress. But its experience shows how transition funds can be one tool to help towns like this around the world move away from depending on fossil fuelsfor energy and income. Here’s David Waskow, Director of WRI’s global climate initiative.
David Waskow 10:15
In Tonawanda, New York, the situation is one that actually we find in a number of places around the world, that the issue is not only a question of lost jobs, but also one of the economic spillover effects in an area and what the impacts on local revenues would be. And so that was a challenge because the plant that was being closed did provide tax revenues for the local area, and as a result of that the citizenry came together across political lines to devise a plan that would fund the economic development in the area and provide the kind of resources that the local area needed. And that was funded ultimately by the state government. So this is really an instance I think of recognizing that it’s not just shifting from one energy source to another, it’s in fact in a way finding the tools to shift the underpinnings of the economy so that there are jobs, so that there’s a strong local economy, so that the local government can be as robust as possible.
Nicholas Walton 11:26
And that was David Waskow, talking with Molly Bergen. This case study from upstate New York is one of three that we’ve put together in this special podcast series on just transition, but we’ve actually got dozens of others that we’ve compiled from around the world, and you can find it all on our website at wri.org/just-transitions.
As countries and companies phase out the fossil fuel facilities that must be closed to keep global warming in check, these examples can provide insights about what works — and what doesn’t — to help other places successfully ride out this transition. Thanks for listening. Goodbye.
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