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What's That Smell?

(photo: Rose Mattrey)

It's not Grand Island. It's benzene pouring out of Tonawanda Coke.

Early last spring, Tonawanda resident Jen Ratajczak read a small newspaper item about an air study that the Department of Environmental Conservation conducted in her neighborhood. After that, she attended a community meeting hosted in the living room of Jackie James-Creedon, executive director of the Clean Air Coalition of Western New York. She met Ken-Ton residents who had four or five types of cancer and learned what carcinogens were actually in the air she was breathing daily. After she left the meeting, Ratajczak says she sat in her car and cried.

That’s because two years prior, just before her 40th birthday, she was diagnosed with leukemia. She had never been a smoker and was told by her doctors at Roswell Park Cancer Institute that the illness was a result of her environment. Indeed, Ratajczak lives less than five miles away from Tonawanda’s industrial district. “Once I had known what was in the air and I met the people that were sick, when I realized it wasn’t just me, but all these other people, I realized there’s no turning back,” she says.

Now Ratajczak is involved with James-Creedon and the CAC’s years-long campaign to get Tonawanda Coke Corporation, by far the area’s largest emitter of carcinogens, to reduce its emissions. Now politicians are jumping on board, too. Early on, CAC paired with Erie County Legislator Michele Iannello and State Senator Antoine Thompson, who passed resolutions at the county and state level calling for Tonawanda Coke to reduce its air emissions. Recently, Senator Chuck Schumer wrote a letter to the plant’s owner, JD Crane, saying: “I have long championed manufacturing in Western New York and I value Tonawanda Coke’s importance as an employer in the region, but with the health and safety of Tonawanda residents at risk, now is the time to ramp-up efforts to reduce these emissions.”

Last Friday, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand wrote a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency urging them to meet with the CAC and local residents to address the growing problem. She writes, “It has become clear that the EPA needs to play a more active role in addressing this serious situation.” The New York State Department of Health is getting in on the action, too. They’re hosting three “public availability sessions” on August 11 and 12. DOH representatives will meet with members of the Ken-Ton community to determine whether they should go ahead with an official health study. They will document the residents’ stories in an attempt to link the residents’ illnesses with the area’s air pollution levels.

The involvement of all these organizations could be detrimental, spreading the issue too thin over too many agencies. Or it could mean that the problem is garnering enough attention for something to happen. James-Creedon is ever-hopeful that it will. She says data collected by the DEC, confirmed in April by the EPA, and an informal “bucket study” that she did prior to agency involvement with materials she purchased at Home Depot, speak loud and clear. “Enough is enough. Come on, let’s do something about it,” she says. “How much more data do you need?”

The most arresting piece of data from all the studies has been that Tonawanda Coke’s benzene emissions are 75 percent higher than New York State recommended guidelines. Benzene is a colorless and highly flammable chemical that is released into the air from burning coal, which the plant does 365 days a year. Exposure to it is directly linked to leukemia and other respiratory and blood diseases.

“Benzene is a known human carcinogen. End of story,” says Joseph Gardella, a University at Buffalo chemistry professor who has been involved with the CAC since 2003. “Everybody who drives over the Grand Island Bridge gets a whiff.” Gardella also points out that American emission standards for benzene are extremely low compared to Canadian and European limits.

A major problem for the CAC and the DEC is the inability to get a response from the Tonawanda Coke Plant and its owner, JD Crane. The plant has not responded to any requests for sit-down meetings with local agencies or to attend community forums, nor has it publicly addressed any environmental concerns. “Tonawanda Coke’s ownership is infamous for their intransigence in cooperating on pollution problems,” says Gardella. “This is a company that has a very bad track record and has no intention of cooperating with anybody.”

Crane’s office did not respond to several requests for comment.

Ratajczak is encouraged by the participation of the EPA, which, as a bigger regulatory agency, can put more pressure on the coke plant. The problem is, Tonawanda Coke is within legal limits to self-report their emissions data to the DEC. In an effort to be more pro-industry in the late 1990s, the Republican Pataki administration promised less government intervention. Pataki allowed plants to self-report their emissions numbers, a luxury the Tonawanda Coke Plant is enjoying. James-Creedon would like to see governmental or third-party inspector come in to collect the data for accuracy. But the plant is notoriously unresponsive and unwilling to comply with this request. This is in contrast to the other Tonawanda plants that have generally been cooperative with local residents, politicians, and regulatory agencies. According to Gardella, the 3M plant, less then a mile away from the Tonawanda Coke, has been open with its emission reports, has showed up at public meetings, and has been willing to work with local groups. “When you have a rogue company, it affects all the other companies trying to do the right thing. Not to mention it’s an insult to the community,” says Gardella. “JD Crane doesn’t live in the plume.”

Recently, the DEC drafted a list of requests to Tonawanda Coke, chief among them that the current 100 in one million cancer risk be reduced to one in one million. If all the cards fall into place, James-Creedon is hoping for a meeting between the DEC and the Coke Plant meeting come fall. “[Residents] are at the end of their ropes. They’re tired of studies, they’re tired of filling out complaint forms,” says Ratajczak. “This has been going on for over a year and it needs to stop.”

The DOH’s availability sessions will be 3-5pm and 6:30-8:30pm on Tuesday, August 11, and 9-11am on Wednesday, August 12 at Sheridan Parkside Community Center in Tonawanda.

ellen przepasniak

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