By Nate McMurray
If you’ve ever been on the Upper Niagara River, you’ve seen the enormous smokestacks of Tonawanda Coke Corporation, billowing black soot across the sky. Last Friday, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) issued a “Cease and Desist” order to the plant, citing “egregious violations” of state and federal clean air laws.
Now, this doesn’t mean the plant needs to stop operating completely. It means Tonawanda Coke needs to stop the portion of their operations that violate environmental violations, which may or may not result in a total cessation of operations. If they refuse, the DEC can revoke their air permits.
Poison in the air
Tonawanda Coke is one of the worst polluters in Western New York, which is saying something. Heavy industries with no regard for the health and safety of their workers or the citizens of the surrounding communities gave us Love Canal and Eighteen Mile Creek in Niagara Country, and the Diaz Chemicals toxic waste site in Orleans County, and a host of other environmental nightmares.
Tonawanda Coke poisoned the air with releases of benzene. Exposure to benzene affects the blood, and long-term exposure causes leukemia. Illegal storage of coal-tar sludge, a toxic byproduct of their chemical process, has caused massive amounts of cyanide to leach into groundwater around the plant. That cyanide-laced water ends up in the Niagara River, where kids swim and animals drink.
Soot from their smokestacks coats the homes and backyards of people living near the plant. I’ve talked to residents who report a chemical odor in the air, migraines, breathing problems, and more on days when the smoke is darkest.
The Commissioner of the NYS DEC says the Cease and Desist is “to prevent potential harm to its workers, surrounding community, and the environment.” If people across the river see negative effects, think about the 50+ employees working in close contact with this stuff on a daily basis. If you look at Tonawanda Coke on Google Earth, the whole area is covered in black
This June, University at Buffalo launched a massive study of the environmental impact Tonawanda Coke has had on our community. When that study is concluded, I am confident it will show that that polluting plant will be linked to illness and death of far too many Western New Yorkers.
Money in their pockets
In 2014, a federal court ordered Tonawanda Coke to pay $24.7 million in fines and penalties for violations of the Clean Air Act. The plant’s Environmental Control Manager, Mark Kamholtz, was convicted of 14 counts of breaking federal environmental laws and one count of obstruction of justice. He spent a year in prison, and paid a $20,000 fine.
And the plant went on polluting. The plant went on poisoning Western New Yorkers. The plant went on breaking the law. Why? Money.
I’m glad the DEC took action against Tonawanda Coke. This is not the end of the fight, but it’s progress. And you can help! Resident complaints and concerns were a driving force behind the DEC action. Grassroots activism groups and individual citizens called, emailed, and filled out reports. It’s important to get informed, attend meetings, and make your voice heard, because this effort puts pressure on entities, such as the DEC, to act.
This is a public health issue—one that affects all of us. Help me keep pushing. If you see black smoke from Tonawanda Coke, smell a chemical odor in the air, or find any fallout (ash, soot) on your property, call 1-844-DEC-ECOS or visit the DEC website, www.dec.ny.gov/regulations/