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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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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

Adele Pic
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.

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