Donation to Daemen both beneficial and controversial to the College

President Olson and Paul Saffrin unveil the new plaque for the Center for Sustainability and Civic Engagement. Photo: Katie Rogers

On Nov. 1, Daemen’s Center for Sustainable Communities and Civic Engagement received a $1 million endowed gift from the Paul A. Saffrin Foundation. Paul Saffrin, who is the CEO of the Tonawanda Coke Corporation, will now have the Center renamed after him.

Because the donation is an endowment, the Center will receive the amount of money that is made each year from interest. President Gary Olson explained that, on average, the interest is around five percent. This would mean that approximately $50,000 will be available for the Center to use.

According to Saffrin, the work that the Center has done aligns with his personal values and he hopes his donation will make a difference. Saffrin said that his foundation has worked towards giving to organizations associated with children and sustainability, so it was very easy for him to give to the Center.

“As long as [the Center] grows-does more of what they’re doing already- I will be extremely happy,” he said.

Saffrin’s relationship with Daemen began with Olson, whom he met in the community.

“I remember meeting him and being impressed, he was relatively new to Daemen but I was impressed with him and what he was carrying out. I began to get involved with the College and I got to see some of the ideas that Dr. Olson originally talked to me about actually take place,” Saffrin explained.

Olson corroborates this, stating that Saffrin was met as part of “outreach efforts” for Daemen and that he and his family have become a part of the Daemen community.

“They’ve just adopted the College as kind of their own college in a way,” Olson said.

 Saffrin and Tonawanda Coke

Saffrin’s company, which he inherited in mid-2014 from grandfather and previous owner J.D. Crane, has its fair share of scandals. Neither owner was personally charged with any criminal misconduct. Tonawanda Coke produces foundry coke, which is a byproduct of coal.  

 “In 2014, Tonawanda Coke was found guilty of breaking 14 federal laws under the Clean Air Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act – federal regulations which were put in place to protect the health of people and families. Over the past three years, there has been numerous workplace injuries, one of which resulted in the death of an employee. Tonawanda Coke was cited by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) as recently as July 2016 of repeat serious safety violations, which included failing to maintain equipment and safe working conditions.  We hope the generous $1 million donation from CEO Paul Saffrin’s Foundation to Daemen College will be matched with an investment in the health and safety of his workforce and the surrounding community,” said Rebecca Newberry, Executive Director of the Clean Air Coalition in Buffalo.

In accordance with federal courts, the company was ordered to pay a $12 million fine to the U.S. government and $12.4 million in community service payments for their criminality with the Clean Air Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. The company was also put under probation for five years. Tonawanda Coke’s conviction against the Clean Air Act is only the second since the Act’s inception in the 1970s.

Accidents this year and in 2014 have also provided fines for the company. An explosion occurred on Jan. 31, 2014. According to the company, there were no injuries and claimed that the explosion was minor. However, OSHA said that two workers reported minor injuries and the state DEC countered that the explosion was significant in terms of scale.

On Feb. 3, 2014, Representative Brian Higgins wrote a letter to the EPA and OSHA in D.C. citing the need for a full federal study about possible effects that the explosion had on air quality and the surrounding community.

As noted by Newberry, a man was killed in January when he was pulled into a rotating coal shaft of an elevator. OSHA claimed that the incident could have been avoided and that serious violations were made by Tonawanda Coke.

With the rocky legal and environmental legacy that the company is known for, Saffrin says his goals are to improve the company. When asked if or how he was doing anything to separate himself from the scandals that largely occurred under his grandfather, Saffrin was surprised.

“Surprisingly, no one’s ever asked me that before. I am a different generation. I am a different person. Everybody likes to learn from their mistakes. We’ve taken on many initiatives here at the coke plant that would make us a more environmentally friendly neighbor. I would hope that the person that I am has transitioned into the company,” he said.

Saffrin’s final statement was as follows: “Since taking control of Tonawanda Coke in 2014 we have made vast capital improvements and taken significant steps to both being environmentally responsible as well as being a good neighbor and employer.  Each day is an opportunity to continue our positive momentum.”

When asked about Saffrin and Tonawanda Coke’s history, Olson had similar views.

“Here’s a new generation that is invested in all kinds of environmental safeguards into his company. He really does care about the environment so he’s trying to make a difference,” Olson said.

Olson also brought up that Saffrin is not just involved with Tonawanda Coke. Saffrin owns a company called impulseGUIDE which deals with digital signage for computer monitors. Saffrin’s company is even used at Daemen.

“When you walk into the Wick, there’s a monitor above the security desk with stuff streaming through. That’s from [Saffrin’s] company and there are other monitors on campus that are the same,” Olson explained.

UB health and soil study-Tonawanda Coke appeals

The $12.4 million that Tonawanda Coke was forced to pay went towards a health and soil study conducted by UB in order to study the effects of emissions on both residents in the community and the employees from Tonawanda Coke. Overhead costs were waived by the university in order to ensure that all funds would go directly to the studies.

After the convictions of 11 counts violating the Clean Air Act and three counts violating the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, Tonawanda Coke issued an apology statement. However, the company, which Saffrin was CEO of at the time, appealed the charges in regards to the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act along with the $12.4 million for the UB studies.

Appeal documents from Tonawanda Coke show that they believed that fair notice was not given to the counts against the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act and that those specific convictions were unlawful. They also felt that they were wrongly forced to fund “evaluative” studies as part of the probation because “payments to non-aggrieved charitable beneficiaries” were not historically consistent with past cases and that the study would not be repairing any effects that the company’s actions might have caused.

Saffrin was asked about the appeal, to which he said had nothing to do with what the money was going to be used for. However, the legal documents filed by Tonawanda Coke’s lawyers call the claim into question.

Joseph Gardella, Jr., who has a doctorate in chemistry, is the principle leader on the soil study. Gardella has been a professor at UB since 1982 and has worked with various neighborhoods in the area to assist with their environmental issues. He has been a part of efforts against Tonawanda Coke since the early 2000s.

When Tonawanda residents began their own investigations into the company’s emissions, Gardella stepped in. Concerned residents organized to form the Clean Air Coalition, whose mission is to build “power by developing grassroots leaders who organize their communities to run and win environmental justice and public health companies in Western NY.”

“I helped by providing funding to pay for the testing to make sure it was done at a certified laboratory so that the results would stand up to scrutiny by government agencies and began working with them on doing that testing. That testing done by the community eventually lead to NYSDEC and the EPA doing a one year air quality study in Tonawanda,” Gardella said.

Government studies showed that there were extreme levels of air toxins, such as benzene within the area. According to DEC reports, the amount of benzene came from Tonawanda Coke. The air toxin was exceedingly prevalent within residential areas and even rivaled concentrations found within the outdoor air in NYC.

When charges were brought up and convictions reached, Tonawanda Coke did not settle. Their appeals were rejected and original convictions were affirmed. A two-year delay of the studies was caused by the appeals, which Gardella is highly critical of.

“It struck me at the time to be incredibly disingenuous to issue a public apology if you’re really apologizing to the community, and then hold up the studies they asked for as a criminal penalty,” Gardella said.

Impact of the donation

Gardella is wary of how Saffrin’s donation will affect Daemen’s reputation. He also questions Saffrin’s motives.

“Daemen has spent the past 15 years really building their community impact and having people look to them as a community partner. I think the message to the people in Tonawanda, including the elected officials who are all supportive of this work to clean up Tonawanda Coke and protect citizens, are probably going to looks at this and say, taking a donation like that and naming the sustainability program after him is completely tone deaf,” Gardella said.

In his opinion, the donation is a public relations initiative that benefits the College and gives Saffrin positive press. Gardella also felt that Olson should have done “due diligence” by researching Tonawanda Coke and talking to the community for their input on the situation. While his opinions are “harsh,” Gardella considers himself a friend to Daemen.

“I don’t like making this kind of criticism,” he said.

Based on his knowledge and relationship with the community, Gardella feels that Saffrin should have called the Clean Air Coalition and community members in Tonawanda to discuss plans in person to improve conditions and better the relationships.

“He may be doing his best to change the legacy of the company and that’s great, but there’s enough out there to indicate that he’s going to do within what makes sense financially for Tonawanda Coke,” Gardella said.  

History of the Center for Sustainable Communities and Civic Engagement

The Center works with three main communities: Seneca Babcock, the West Side of Buffalo, and the Broadway-Fillmore neighborhood.  It was started in the early 2000s by former Daemen President Ed Clausen. Clausen was the Dean of Students at the time of the Center’s inception, which was right after Service Learning was added to the core curriculum.

“Service had always been a big part of Daemen, even from the days of it being Rosary Hill,” said Executive Director Cheryl Bird.

According to Bird, Clausen wanted the Center to be different from what other colleges did, which was usually just collecting research from the community site and leaving.

“He really wanted to make a long-term sustainable difference to disadvantaged communities,” said Bird, who indicated that the Center has done just that.

During the first three years, the Center was funded through a grant from the John R. Oshei Foundation. The Oshei Foundation’s mission statement is “to be a catalyst for change to enhance the economic vitality and quality of life for the Buffalo Niagara region through grantmaking, leadership and network building.” To earn the funding, three sustainable components had to been met: educational, economic, and environmental.

Seneca Babcock was the first community to come under the Center’s wing. In 1998, Daemen’s social work department began working with members in the community.

“We continued to expand the footprint in the Seneca Babcock community, which is without a doubt one of the most disadvantaged communities in the city of Buffalo,” Bird said.

Daemen students now work at the after-school program, help run activities at the Boys & Girls Community Center and provide health clinics and presentations for the community.

The Empowerment Team was also created with Daemen’s help. The team consists of the leaders from small agencies within the community that seek to improve conditions. Bi-monthly meetings are held and the members discuss about what issues are prevalent and ways to move the community forward.

In 2003, the West Side was included to the Center’s efforts.

“Daemen was sort of on the forefront of meeting with community leaders and being involved with the community as far as different projects to start some of the renaissance that really has just taken off on the West Side,” said Bird.

Prior to Daemen’s interaction with the West Side, the neighborhood was wrought with a plethora of issues, including poor housing, drugs, gangs and crime. Similar efforts were made in the West Side that were conducted in Seneca Babcock in order to help the community. This included consolidating the silo agencies that already existed within the West Side to come together.

“Now, the West Side is one of the most desirable places to live. Our focus has changed there from being part of that grassroots planning because there’s many other organizations that have jumped into that and just the whole economy of the West Side has changed. Now our focus is refugees,” Bird said.

The largest program that aids refugees is the after-school program at Lafayette High School. There are also adult programs at Jewish Family Services Refugee Resettlement Agency. Here, refugees who have just arrived to the city who are illiterate in both their own language and English, are taught basic life skills.

“Our work with refugees has really, really expanded on the West Side and I think we’re really very well-known for that because not only have we worked with the refugees at the various programs, but we have some of those students coming to Daemen,” Bird proudly stated.

In Bird’s office sits a photograph of her with one of the refugee students who ended up graduating from Daemen.

For seven years, the third community under the Center was the Fruit Belt in Buffalo. When it was realized that there was less worked needed in that region, focus shifted to the Broadway-Fillmore neighborhood.

“There’s much, much work to be done there. We’re working with the block clubs, the grassroots level projects to try and help restore and build back that community,” said Bird.

Educational and economic components of sustainability are completed through Service Learning and the work that is done within the community since, as Bird said, “If you’re building back a community, you’re building back its economic vitality.”

The environmental aspect is completed through the Center’s work with the annual Environmental Summit at Daemen and the online newsletter Enviro-News.

The Summit brings together people from the area to discuss environmental issues. Vendors, panels, and speakers are all included in the event.

Enviro-News is published each month by Brenda Young, who is not only a natural sciences professor at Daemen, but also the Director of Global & Local Sustainability. People from the surrounding areas submit articles about environmental issues and events concerning Western NY, which Young consolidates and sends out in the newsletter.

Even past issues of the Enviro-News advertised events hosted by the Clean Air Coalition against Tonawanda Coke. One of these events, Toxic Tours, had individuals come together to tour the leading polluting forces with the community. On the list of sites to visit was Tonawanda Coke.  

We will continue to cover this story as more information develops. A follow-up story will be worked on speaking to community members from Tonawanda and their views on the situation.

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