From “Buckets” to “Dirt”: Cleaning Up Tonawanda Through Citizen Science

“We wanted to know what was in the air we were breathing, so a few of us started a Bucket Brigade in Tonawanda”, explained founding Clean Air Coalition of WNY (CACWNY) member Adele Henderson.

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The original Tonawanda “Bucket Brigade”, with our Bucket, 2005 (L-R) Meyers, Jackie James Creedon, Bob Hirsch, and Adele Henderson

It was just four of us, we were the Clean Air Coalition on a mission to find out what was making us sick!  In 2005, we tested our air with the bucket, a community environmental and empowerment tool, and found high levels of carcinogenic benzene.

We shared our data with the the New York Sate Department of Environmental Conservation (NYS DEC) and  worked closely with them to secure state of the art air monitors to find out how bad our air really was.

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One of four Tonawanda air monitoring stations (2008) – NYS DEC Tonawanda Air Quality Study

In 2009 after collecting and testing our air for one year, the NYS DEC determined our community was overburdened by air toxins and we needed cleaner air!  They produced a   research report  pinpointing Tonawanda Coke Corp.,  a merchant foundry coke manufacturer, as the predominant source of benzene in our community.

Our community was now armed with hard scientific data.  Using this information along with political and public pressure and the media (we rallied outside the gates of TCC),  Tonawanda Coke  was forced to install air controls resulting in an 86% reduction in benzene emissions.

Many found our story an inspiration.  We caught the attention of national media and  were featured on NPR, click here to listen.

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Me (Jackie James Creedon) and reporter Sandra Bartlett (NPR)

Today, we are breathing cleaner air in Tonawanda and all of Western NY because a few of us decided to test our air with the “bucket”. It did not take an army , only a few passionate and committed citizen scientists to affect change!

After our big victory in 2010 , I was exhausted and very sick (I have fibromyalgia). I needed a break and decided to leave the Clean Air Coalition.  Not realizing it at that time, my environmental activism career was not over with. A few years later, I would move from air (buckets) to soil (dirt) testing in my community!

Forward to 2012. I was contacted by a reporter in Birmingham, AL concerning a community north of their city, where two foundry coke manufactuer reside, and how they tested their soil and found high levels of a dangerous chemical called Benzo[a]pyrene  (BAP). Check out the reporters investigative report “Deadly Deception”.  I immediately questioned, could our soil be contaminated too?

At the same time, people in a neighborhood just south of Tonawanda Coke complained of of a black gooey substance depositing on their vehicles and burning holes in the paint! click here to check it out.  Could this stuff be the same contamination found in Birmingham?  Maybe, I needed to find out.

So, I started the Tonawanda Community Fund to pay for soil testing. I enlisted a few of my neighbors (not the same Bucket Brigaders) and we tested our soil.

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Chuck Matteliano, Andrew Baumgartner, and Me (Jackie James Creedon) at Kaufman Ave Playground in Tonawanda, 2012

We collected soil samples from this playground …..

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and 5 homes in the neighborhood.

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Taking a soil “slug” from a yard

We also collected a background sample at Beaver Island State Park.  Each soil sample, a composite of 6 sub samples, was tested at Test America (Amherst, NY) for 16 polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), including BAP,  and 8 heavy metals.

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Taking soil sample from a garden

What Did We Find? 

The same dangerous chemical (BAP) found in Birmingham was also found at high levels in Tonawanda!  BAP and BAP equivalents or BAP-TEQ is a measurement used to determine the total toxicity effect of polycyclic aromatic hydrcarbons (PAH’s) in soil.   In Birmingham, the EPA is currently using a value of 1.5 ppm and higher as criteria for cleaning up their soil. Three out of seven samples in the Tonawanda study would trigger clean up if in Birmingham!

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What’s Next?

  • We need Tonawanda Coke to install controls to reduce our exposure to BAP (from air).
  •  We need  more testing to determine the extent of BAP soil contamination in the neighborhoods most affected (Tonawanda’s, Eastern Grand Island, North Buffalo).

On January 29, 2013, we presented our findings to the media at a press conference in Tonawanda. We already have the support from many politicians (Legislator Hardwick, Assemblyman Schimminger, Senator Grisanti, Tonawanda Town Supervisor Caruana, so far).

In May 2013, we began discussions with our government officials (EPA and NYS DEC), and possible funding sources to test the soil in and around Tonawanda’s industrial corridor; however, in the meantime, we  wasted no time.  This past summer, in conjunction with the University of Buffalo and SUNY Fredonia and several local highschool students, we tested several more yards in the area.

We expect results by Nov 2013.

Once again, because of citizen science, we are on our way to a cleaner and healthier Tonawanda and Western New York!

About  Tonawanda Community Fund was established in 2011 by Jackie James-Creedon, founding member and former executive director of the Clean Air Coalition of WNY, to support her neighbors who have been affected by Tonawanda’s industrial pollution. Through outreach, grants and donations, the fund provides financial means to help the Kenmore/Tonawanda, NY and surrounding communities by continuing scientific environmental monitoring, protecting environment and improving overall health.

The Whole Truth, Nothing but the Truth…

..so help me God.  This is the part of the oath that I have heard approximately 30 witnesses take in the last 30 days of sometimes very excruciating testimony in the Tonawanda Coke  Corp vs. United States of America (EPA) case at United States District Court in Buffalo, NY.  A historical case in many ways. I didn’t realize it would be setting precedent for future cases when it started nearly a month ago, but now I do.  I attended nearly everyday; and, as I sat there, it dawned on me that none of this would be happening if it wasnt for a few neighbors and me taking our own air samples (via the “bucket“) in Tonawanda a few years ago.

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Buckets housed with tedlar bags in which we captured air samples in Tonawanda (2008).

Wow!  I got chills thinking about it and am right now.  When that happens I know it’s my soul telling me, “This is cool, you are in the right place and making a difference.”  As I sit here this morning knowing that the jury is deliberating, I am reflecting on all of what has happened these last several years and feeling humbled and grateful to have been part of all of this positive change in my community.

As this trial is setting precedent for future cases, my wish is that what we did will set precedent for change in other overburdened communities. It doesn’t take an army to affect change, just a few passionate people with good focus and determination. That we were  as a very small community group, calling ourselves the Clean Air Coalition of WNY in Tonawanda, NY. We knew in our heart of heart’s there was a problem with the air we were breathing and we believed people were sick because of it.  We took it upon ourselves to take our own air sample, and discovered an air pollution problem.  We brought our results to the attention of the government agencies (NYS DEC and EPA), and worked with them to affect change!!

It began with just a few of us, not an army.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

― Margaret Mead

My Impacted Neighbors: Anne’s Story

Anne Adams-Smutzer
Kenmore, NY (Westgate Ave)

In early 2009, I was outside shoveling snow at about 10:30PM. When I was overcome by an overpowering industrial air pollution smell and burning sensation in my mouth, throat and lungs. I immediately went inside and tried to rinse my mouth out for about a half hour to get rid of that feeling. The burning feeling in my lungs lasted for three days, and I lost my voice within three days. My voice didnt come back until late June of 2009. I was told by my dr. that I now have scar tissue on my voicebox. And I was still feeling very sick by the summer , I underwent testing for different cancers. I went for numerous xrays and a tumor was found in my lower right lung. I have been undergoing constant xrays every six months and yearly, and many blood tests to keep an observation on this tumor. I am now a patient at Roswell Park as of June 2012. I will continue to be monitored by my family physician, asthma dr, lung specialist, lung surgeon, and drs at Roswell Park. The doctors will not operate or  biopsy the tumor because of where it is located. Everyday,I live with a lung tumor, not knowing if it is cancer or not.

Breathing in the bad industrial air smell in my neighborhood makes me angry! It is horrible to keep breathing in this air that smells like strong chemical odors during the day and night. My children are affected too!  It also makes them sick over long periods of time.

This is my story — Anne Adams-Smutzer

Tonawanda Coke Campaign: How We Made Our Air Cleaner!

Tonawanda’s 2005 Bucket Brigade

“We wanted to know what was in the air we were breathing, so a few of us started a Bucket Brigade in Tonawanda”, explained founding Clean Air Coalition of WNY (CACWNY) member Adele Henderson.

A “Bucket Brigade” is a respected method of air sampling using a “bucket”.  In short, a three minute sample of ambient air was drawn into a special bag and sent to a lab for analysis.  Adele, me and a few other neighbors ( calling ourselves “Toxic Tonawanda” and later “Clean Air Coalition”) collected three air samples in 2004 and 2005 in Tonawanda, NY.  The sample results measured benzene, a known carcinogen, at 54 µg /m3. The New York State guideline for benzene is 0.13µg/m3.  We worked with government agencies and local Universities to figure out where the benzene was coming from.  In 2009, The NYS Department of Environmental Conservation produced a report pinpointing Tonawanda Coke Corp, as the main benzene source in our community.  We then ran a direct campaign against Tonawanda Coke Corp. which resulted in real change! In 2010 through 2011, Tonawanda Coke Corp installed air pollution control equipment resulting in an 86% reduction in benzene emissions!

To hear and read national coverage of our campaign, check out: http://www.npr.org/2011/11/10/142189390/tonawanda-provides-lessons-for-fighting-toxic-air