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Clean Air Coalition takes on the Tonawanda Coke Plant

Clearing the Air

For years, residents of Riverside, Kenmore, and the Tonawandas have had to contend with living among industrial sites. For residents and politicians, it’s a double-edged sword. These industries provide jobs and contribute taxes, but some also release dangerous chemicals into the air, many of which cause illnesses.

The Clean Air Coalition of Western New York is now renewing its fight against what it believes to be the area’s biggest offender, the Tonawanda Coke Plant. But this time, the CAC has backing from county and state government.

Through studies with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and the Environmental Protection Agency, the CAC has determined that the Tonawanda Coke Plant is responsible for more than 95 percent of benzene emissions in Erie and Niagara Counties. This led to support from State Senator Antoine Thompson and Erie County Legislator Michele Iannello, who passed resolutions at the state and county level in support of reducing the release of carcinogens from the Tonawanda Coke Plant. “What we want is environmentally friendly and energy-efficient industry,” says Iannello, who is the chair of the county’s Green Action Committee.

Benzene is a chemical released into the air from burning coal, which the Tonawanda Coke Plant does 365 days a year. It’s colorless, highly flammable, and evaporates quickly into the air. Benzene exposure is directly linked to leukemia as well as other respiratory and blood diseases—some as simple as asthma, others as complicated as fibromyalgia.

Jackie James-Creedon, executive director of the CAC, first learned of the benzene levels when she did her own “bucket” study several years ago. With materials she bought at Home Depot, she took air samples around the area, sent them to an EPA-certified lab, and found higher than normal levels of benzene. She presented the information to the DEC, which then placed four air monitors in the area for a one-year period. The DEC study found benzene emissions to be 75 times the state guidelines.

Iannello jumped on board the project when she learned of the results from one of the air monitors placed at the base of the Grand Island Bridge in Tonawanda. She has called for the removal of the Grand Island tolls in the past because of double taxation, but also feared that poor air quality endangered the health of those waiting in their cars, toll-takers, and area residents. “What really struck home for me is going on the scene with a resident, Mary Moore, who took a white glove and showed me the soot,” Iannello says.

For James-Creedon, this fight is personal. She grew up in the area and now owns a home in Kenmore. “It was dirty back then and it’s dirty now,” she says. Through the CAC, she wants to fight for her community and represent those who may have illnesses that are a direct result of the emissions from the Tonawanda Coke Plant. Last November, the CAC sent a letter to the plant requesting a meeting. James-Creedon received a letter back from the plant’s lawyers declining a meeting and CAC’s claims. “They’re not a good neighbor,” she says.

The Tonawanda Coke Plant self-reports its emission levels to the DEC, which James-Creedon believes is part of the problem. If governmental or third-party regulators were allowed to come into the plant and test levels, the plant might be held more accountable for its emissions. “The current rules and regulations are weak and have to be strengthened,” James-Creedon says. “These plants are self-regulating and as a result, the numbers of benzene are being underreported.”

Representatives of the Tonawanda Coke Plant refused to comment on this story, referring to the company’s attorney. That attorney, Craig Slater, of the firm Harter Secrest & Emery, did not respond to requests for comment, either.

Both Iannello and Thompson have offered to partner with the Tonawanda Coke Plant to get them energy efficiency stimulus money from the Obama administration or grants from the New York State Energy Research and Development Agency (NYSERDA). The plant has been unresponsive to these requests. “We were hoping that they’d set the example and the other industries will follow suit,” Iannello says.

This fight also comes on the heels of the release of the American Lung Association’s annual “State of the Air” report, which named Erie County as having one of the worst air qualities in the state. Erie County received failing grades for both smog and soot levels. According to the report, “coal-fired power plants are among the largest contributors to particulate pollution, ozone, mercury, and global warming.” The report pushes for tighter EPA regulations against emissions from industrial plants, like the Tonawanda Coke Plant.

At 7pm on Tuesday, the CAC is holding a Forum for Community Health at Sheridan Park Youth Center in Tonawanda. Iannello and many residents of Riverside, Kenmore, and the Tonawandas will be in attendance to show their support for cleaning up the air pollution. J. D. Crane, the owner of Tonawanda Coke Corporation, has been invited and a chair will be waiting for him.

ellen przepasniak

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