On March 28th, 2013 twelve jurors found Tonawanda Coke and its environmental control manager guilty of 14 criminal charges violating the Clean Air Act and Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. Some of the charges included releasing coke oven gas, containing enormous amounts of benzene, into the air through a pressure relief valve and not reporting the emissions to regulators.
This landmark verdict is only the second time in US history that a company has been indicted and convicted under the Clean Air Act and has set precedent for a number of environmental cases to come.
Justice was served in our community. It all started with a few of us wanting to breathe cleaner air and wondering if air pollution was the cause of so many sick people in our community. In 2005, we formed the Clean Air Coalition and used a 5-gallon bucket from Home Depot, baggies and a hand-held vacuum to test our air.
We found shockingly high levels of benzene, which, with chronic exposure, is linked to blood disorders like leukemia, and infertility. Our small group of impassioned citizens worked with government agencies and others for our right to breathe clean air – and we won!
In 2011 and 2012, Tonawanda Coke was forced to install air pollution devices. Benzene emissions at the facility were reduced by 86%. We were now breathing cleaner air; however, the fight was not over. We feared there were still other dangerous contaminants coming from Tonawanda Coke.
We knew Tonawanda Coke did not have particulate reducing emission controls on their facility. This particulate organic matter (POM), which is very similar to soot from a fireplace, is a significant portion of coke oven emissions and has been identified in the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments as a hazardous air pollutant (HAP) and is classified by the USEPA as a known human carcinogen.
We also heard numerous stories of how particulate matter was depositing on property and interfering with the quality of life of our community members. Was Tonawanda Coke contaminating our soil too?
In 2012, two of my neighbors and I grabbed a shovel and a few jars and sampled our soil and sent it to a nearby laboratory to be tested.
Our fear was validated…
In a neighborhood adjacent to Tonawanda Coke, we tested seven yards and found dangerous chemicals in every one! The class of chemicals we found called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), includes many known carcinogens that are associated with foundry coke production and POM. In a subsequent study in the summer of 2013, after recruiting students from Kenmore East and Kenmore West High School to help out, we sampled and tested several more yards. The same PAH’s were discovered in these yards too.
Last year before the sentencing of Tonawanda Coke Corp., we petitioned the court to keep any fine monies local. Using the data obtained from our soil study, we submitted a proposal entitled “Determining the Environmental Impact of Coke Oven Emissions Originating from Tonawanda Coke Corp. on Surrounding Residential Community” to the Judge in the case, Mr. William Skretny. On March 19, 2014 Tonawanda Coke was sentenced and ordered to fund our study in the amount of $711,000! The company was also fined $12.5 million and ordered to fund an $11 million University at Buffalo Epidemiology and Toxicology study.
This is the first time in history a Federal Judge has ordered community service projects as a term of probation against a company found guilty of a criminal act, and it happened here in our community!
Additionally, Tonawanda Coke has agreed to install “pushing emission controls” to reduce the particulate matter coming from the facility. The project is expected to be completed late 2015.
Rep. Brian Higgins, who represents our district, said he credits an “engaged, enraged and educated” community with the sentencing decision.
In April 2014, Tonawanda Coke appealed the sentence and community service projects. It will be six months to one year before we receive our funding and it is also possible the judges ruling will be reversed in appeals court.
Regardless of this delay, we are wasting no time.
Today, we are working out the final details of our summer 2014 projects and continue to remain vigilant against a company that is still operating with a history of committing serious environmental crimes. Additionally, besides violating the Clean Air Act, in 2010, Tonawanda Coke violated the Clean Water Act too. In the same year, the Environmental Protection Agency issued an order against the company for discharging cyanide in excess of their permit.
“Citizens of this community are entitled to breathe clean air and drink clean water, explained Judge William Hochul, United States Attorney for the Western District of New York. “Their conduct (Tonawanda Coke) was especially egregious.”
My neighbors and I, now calling ourselves Citizen Science Community Resources, believe in our right to live, work and play in a safe and clean environment. We have already won a major battle against a company with a “catch me if you can” attitude. Our fight has taken 10 years thus far and we continue to stay committed to the journey for as long as it takes.