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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
We collected soil samples from this playground …..
and 5 homes in the neighborhood.
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.
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!
- 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.
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