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.


Winning at Tonawanda Coke: Our Story Continues

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.

The “Bucket”: A Community Empowerment Tool used to Capture a Sample of Air

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?

Soil Testing Fall 2012, Chuck Matteliano, Andrew Baumgartner, and me (L-R)

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.

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.

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!

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