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Video: Clean Air, Health and Justice vs. Tonawanda Coke

We won our right back for clean air in Tonawanda using Community (aka Citizen) Science. …check out our new video to find out how we did it, what else happened, and more…

Clean Air Health and Justice vs. Tonawanda Coke Corp.

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Tonawanda Coke Corp. Found Guilty!

Tonawanda Coke Corp. Curtesy of Tonawanda News

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 (RCRA).

The trial included testimony from over 30 witnesses, many former employees, and lasted over a month.

This landmark verdict is only the second time in US history that a company has been indicted and found guilty under the Clean Air Act – and has set precedent for a number of environmental cases to come.

As Judith A. Enck, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regional administrator, said to the Buffalo News,

“The verdict against Tonawanda Coke Corporation and Mark L. Kamholz sends a strong message that companies and individuals can’t simply ignore environmental law and disregard people’s health.The company faces up to $220 million in fines and Mr Kamholz up to 75 years in jail.  A historical case, no doubt.

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The “Bucket”

I never thought in a million years that the air sample my neighbors and I took with the “bucket” several years ago would  have lead to this.  But it did!

Never underestimate the power of a couple of committed and impassioned citizens to affect change.  We did it, and I truly believe others can too.

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.