In 1995 my husband and I bought our house at 363 Esser Avenue/146 Newfield St. (Riverside). If we had known what was ahead of us we never would have moved into this neighborhood.
Shortly after moving in we were dismayed by brief yet intense and frequent onsets of a foul, heavy, acrid, tar-like stench that that shifted with the wind. The odor was bad enough to wake us from our sleep and forced us to close all of our windows, even on the hottest of nights. Sleeping in the heat and stink was unbearable. It gave me immediate headaches and constricted my breathing. It reached a point that we finally gave up and installed central air conditioning, just to be able to sleep. Even then “the stink” would find its way into the house and wake us up. During the day the offensive smell was frequently so disgusting that it forced us indoors. I would be outside gardening, enjoying the birds or swimming in the pool and then without notice, the air would become unbearable and I would have to rush indoors and close all the windows. Most evenings we would go to Isle View Park in Tonawanda to walk the dogs along the river and get some fresh air. Our walks were increasingly ruined by the same odors we encountered there as well. Before long we were checking the wind direction to see if it was “safe” to go to the river for our walk because if the wind was coming out of the SSW we learned we would be caught in its reeking path.
All of this made me incredibly angry and depressed. I am an outdoors person – in the summer I spend the majority of my days outside. In the winter we walk our dogs daily no matter what the weather. Tonawanda Coke was ruining our quality of my life. My doctor advised me to move and we seriously considered selling our house and moving. But who would want our house and why should we move? We were not the cause of the problem!
Six years after moving to Riverside, in 2001, I met Jackie James and with a handful of people we formed Toxic Tonawanda (which became the Clean Air Coalition of WNY). Our goal was to identify and expose the source of the pollution that was ruining our enjoyment of the outdoors. Over the first few years we met monthly and got organized. Our first public event was a “bucket brigade” training where we taught people how to make their own air sampling devices out of 5 gallon paint buckets, a hair dryer and some simple hardware. Soon after that we took air samples near Tonawanda Coke that revealed high levels of benzene as well as ammonia and held press conferences releasing the data we had obtained. We wrote to Don Crane, the owner of Tonawanda Coke, politely asking for a meeting withhim to discuss our concerns. In return, we received a letter from his attorney refusing our simple request. In short, because of Don Crane and Tonawanda Coke’s unwillingness to meet with us or to control their pollution we spent countless hours pouring over records of Tonawanda Coke at the DEC office, on the phone or on the street canvasing and recruiting new members to get involved. Because of his arrogant refusal to do the right thing we held monthly community meetings and recruited people in the neighborhoods to join in and persuaded UB professors, DEC, and EPA officials to help us in our fight to stop Don Crane’s Tonawanda Coke from ruining our lives. Collectively core members of our group spent thousands of hours and personal resources working for justice.
Our intention as a group was never to shut down Tonawanda Coke, but to work together with them to clean up their operation. We asked them to be good neighbors and they would not even grant us the human courtesy of talking to us. What is most infuriating is that none of this was necessary. TCC could have controlled their emissions if they cared about anyone or anything besides the bottom line. Although my health has not been seriously compromised, dozens if not hundreds suffer chronic illness because they live (or lived) too close to TCC. These people are seriously ill because Don Crane and Mark Kamholz refused to take responsibility for their criminal actions. We urge the court to fine Tonawanda Coke the maximum allowable under the law and to make an example out of Mark Kamholz by sending him to prison. Doing otherwise would send a message to others that theirs was not a serious criminal offense. These are not victimless crimes. Many have suffered and many will continue to suffer because of Tonawanda Coke’s decision to act in a reckless and endangering manner.