Clearing the Air

Coalition in Buffalo aims to lessen damaging effects of pollution

By Tim Fenster

When residents of the north towns of Buffalo began to suspect industrial pollutants were causing cancer and other illnesses in their neighborhood, they didn’t wait around for answers from industries or government agencies.

They took action.

Now, some 10 years after Tonawanda-area residents formed the Clean Air Coalition, pollutant levels are down dramatically, and the worst polluters have been convicted of criminal charges. But their ongoing fight for cleaner air in Tonawanda, southern Grand Island and northwest Buffalo is far from over.

The group is continuing to monitor the air and soil near Tonawanda Coke and other manufacturing plants to ensure the health of residents.

“There were residents who were really sick and were concerned that environmental pollution might have caused or impacted that,” said Rebecca Newberry, executive director of the CAC.

The coalition was formed more than a decade ago when residents became concerned that area manufacturing plants were causing higher rates of cancer and other serious illnesses among those who lived nearby.

They began pushing the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to test the air, which the agency conducted from July 2007 to June 2008. Meanwhile, CAC volunteers formed a bucket brigade, using ordinary buckets with Teflon-type bags to capture air samples and then sending them to the EPA for analysis.

Benzene the culprit

The studies confirmed residents’ fears: benzene, a chemical shown to cause leukemia and other illnesses, was found in unusually high concentrations in the areas tested near Tonawanda Coke.

One air monitor recorded levels of benzene that were nearly 75 times the exposure standards set by the DEC.

“That was a huge red flag,” Newberry said.

The following year, the New York State Department of Health conducted a health outcomes review for Tonawanda and the surrounding areas. Their findings, too, confirmed residents’ fears — that occurrences of lung, bladder and overall cancers were higher in those who lived near the plants than in other parts of the state.

The studies soon led to action. In December 2009, the EPA raided Tonawanda Coke, and the plant’s environmental control manager was arrested shortly after.

The company was accused of using cooling towers that lacked necessary anti-pollution equipment and of illegally disposing of toxic byproducts.

The company was eventually convicted of more than a dozen violations under the Clean Air Act and fined more than $12 million. The court also ordered Tonawanda Coke to remediate soils near the plant, fund a 10-year health study conducted by the University at Buffalo and immediately change its pollution control systems.

The result has been dramatic. The most recent DEC study, conducted from July 2015 to June 2016, found a 92 percent reduction in benzene levels.

“We know with these lower benzene levels, fewer people will get cancer,” Newberry said.

Looking forward, the CAC will continue to advocate for better pollution controls at Tonawanda Coke, aid in air and soil testing near the plants, and advocate for other Western New Yorkers who have been harmed by air pollutants.

“Our role right now is to ensure the state agencies are doing their job to hold these companies accountable,” Newberry said.