Tonawanda News — Though she had only lived in Western New York for a couple of years — and in Buffalo at that — Corina Vacco felt so compelled by the concern of residents who live near the Tonawanda landfill that she attended meetings about the site’s safety, followed stories in the newspaper and just recently, from the other side of the country, wrote a book.
To be clear, Vacco’s young adult release, “My Chemical Mountain,” isn’t explicitly about the Tonawanda landfill — it doesn’t even use specific geographical names or references. But it was certainly inspired by the years of testing, meetings and citizen complaints about the site that sits right near the border of the city and town of Tonawanda, the author said.
Vacco’s interest in the landfill began in 2006 when a friend of hers living in the city expressed concern over the landfill.
“My friend lives right next to the landfill,” Vacco said. “She told me that she received a letter from the City of Tonawanda saying she couldn’t eat any vegetables out of her garden. She and her husband put up a greenhouse so they could grow. They tried to sell their house but couldn’t.”
Vacco had only just moved to Western New York two years earlier with her husband, who was transfered to the area as part of his job with the U.S. Coast Guard. They lived in Buffalo at the time, and even though the potential landfill problems didn’t concern her, Vacco said she couldn’t just ignore the problem.
“We’re all breathing the same air,” she said.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers ultimately determined the levels of radioactive waste in the landfill weren’t harmful, but Vacco remained unconvinced. She went to meetings where she said residents’ concerns were often quickly shut down by officials.
“One woman said 22 people on her street had cancer, but she was told she can’t connect that to landfill. I was fed up,” Vacco said. “I thought I have to write about this because there are people who are passionate in this audience and they’re just being shut down.”
She said she was appalled to learn how close a nearby elementary school is to the site and hear stories from some residents about playing at the landfill as children.
So Vacco, who now lives in California, put pen to paper and wrote the story of two fictitious kids on the brink of adulthood as their town struggles with similar concerns of pollution. She said she drew not only from stories she heard about the Tonawanda landfill, but from other similar stories across the world.
“My mom used to chase the mosquito truck down the street and dance in the clouds of pesticide” as a child, Vacco said. “People now think that’s so crazy.
“I decided to write the book from the perspect of a boy who has spent his life playing in the landfill and swimming in the creek. I wanted to paint a story that focused not on pollution ... but I wanted to write one about a story of friends and these rules for your whole lives. As you’re becoming older you have to make a choice, change the situation and it’s about what will it cost you.
“One of the boys wants to act out in violence because he’s upset about a chemical company that’s been polluting their town ... he wants revenge. Another one of the boys wants to go about it in a more reasonable way by going to town meetings.”
Vacco said she was amazed when “My Chemical Mountain” was picked up to be published by Random House, which selected the book as the winner of the Delacourt Press contest for best young adult novel. Random House only accepts unsolicited manuscripts once a year as part of the contest and chose Vacco’s book to be published out of about 700 submissions.
Ultimately she hopes her book will “wake up some of these scoundrels” whose companies pollute the land where people live.
“I want the people who participated in that (Tonawanda landfill) meeting that night and went home without any hope to know that they’re not alone and people did hear them,” she said.