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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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My Life With Fibromyalgia

I woke up this morning, another day with Fibromyalgia. And to tell you the truth, I was feeling sort of sorry for myself. It is very tiring living with this chronic illness every single day.  The pain is excruciating. I have chosen only to take pain killers when I absolutely need to and dont take regular meds because of the side effects.  I practice yoga and meditation instead. I have a meditation room that I have dedicated to my healing.

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My meditation/yoga room

Getting back to what it is like living with fibromyalgia.  When you have pain all the time, you can get pretty depressed and sometimes anxious , and oh it affects your sleep too. Stress makes it worse and  if you’re not careful, you can end up in a tail spin going downward and end up in bded for several days. Like I said, it can get depressing. So, I was having one of those depressing mornings today, I was even crying. I decided to write about it , and here I am. I was going to write how horrible I feel all the time, when I was diagnosed, etc..It was going to be all about me and my fibromyalgia  I opened up my computer and for some reason I started reading a few of the many impact statements I received from some really sick people in Tonawanda and Grand Island, NY.  I read this one statement of a woman living on the eastern portion of Grand Island, NY. She lives right across the river from Tonawanda Coke Corp.

“The carcinogens released in the air by Tonawanda Coke may have contributed to the death of my two children and health issues for another child.  My son diagnosed at age 5 died at age 6 from Non-Hodgkin’s Burkitt’s Lymphoma – lived near the study area. My Daughter diagnosed at age 21 died at age 27 from Glioblastoma- a brain cancer – lived in the study area. My other daughter born in 1993 is being treated for debilitating headaches – lived in the study area. Loosing a child was the most painful life event I could possibly imagine. Yet it was inconceivable that it could happen a second time.  But it did. I keep thinking ….how could this have happened???? I may never know that answer. However, I would have done anything in this world to protect them including not living near a company that polluted the air with carcinogens – had I known.This is a life sentence for me and certainly my 2 children and the families they might have had if they had survived.”

I can’t even imagine what this must be like loosing two children!  I have two teenage boys and this is inconceivable for me. As I read this woman’s story, the pain of my fibromyalgia seemed almost insignificant to the pain this woman must go through every single day of her life.  The grief and guilt she must feel while wondering if she had chosen not to live near Tonawanda Coke, her children may be alive today.  This is true pain.

When I realized how Tonawanda Coke has affected so many people in our community and all the pain and suffering, my pain seemed pale in comparison. Gaining perspective literally made my issues subside.   I physically didn’t feel so bad anymore. I am serious. What happened?  When I realized I was a part of something bigger, I felt better.

We cant turn back the hands of time and bring back all of the lives that have been lost and remove all of our sickness. But, I can accept  the everyday challenge of getting out of bed and living with this illness knowing that despite of my illness and because of it, I made this world better.  If it wasn’t for the fibromyalgia, my neighbors and I would have never taken that bucket sample of air that led to holding this company accountable..  All the good we did to make our community a better and cleaner place to live, would  not have happened.  There was truly something especially good that came out of my illness.

Remembering this, allows me to accept my pain.  Now, I can get out of bed and start my day.

How We Won for a Cleaner Environment. Post #1

This is the first in a series of blog posts about “How We Won for Cleaner Air in Tonawanda, NY”

When National Public Radio really did interview me for their story NY Plant’s Neighbors Expose Regulatory Gaps (click here to listen) they stopped short of reporting on the specifics of how we did this.

That’s why I am writing this blog, to share with you the “Whole Truth” from the very beginning of my 12 year journey.  What my neighbors and I did was absolutely amazing and maybe you can try what we did, feel inspired and make our world a better place too.

But before we start, I want to make my most important message loud and clear. I plan to highlight this message in each and every post because, if you don’t get anything else and remember just one thing, it should be this:

“It doesn’t take an army to affect change. It can start with one person or just a few passionate people with good instincts, the right motives and determination to make a difference. ”  

Watch , as I explain “The Power of a Few”

That’s it. Pretty simple, right? You may have already heard this, and perhaps you thought yeah, sure, OK, big deal. A few people and maybe even one person has the power to make a difference, blah, blah, blah. Well, this turned out to be a very big deal in Tonawanda. But, first I am going to let you in on a secret that, aside from a few close friends, few people know.

Stay tuned and read my post next week, where I will share with you “my secret”….btw- if you have any questions, feel free to subscribe to my blog and ask!

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.

My Impacted Neighbors: Adele’s Story

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Adele Henderson

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!

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The “Bucket”

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.

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.