Tonawanda News — A proposal by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation that would potentially reduce the number of air monitors in the state has raised a red flag with a local environmental group, the Clean Air Coalition, which is credited with uncovering egregious air quality violations at the Tonawanda Coke plant on River Road.
The statement, released this week by DEC Commissioner Joe Martens, indicated that a recent proposal would consider the removal of some of New York’s roughly 80 monitors in cases where there were also on-site industrial monitors.
“While these environmental monitoring services are an important management tool to ensure the protection of public health and the environment, environmental monitors do not replace DEC staff,” Martens said. “They are used where circumstances warrant an added level of oversight.
But Erin Heaney, executive director of the Clean Air Coalition, said it was the installation of four air monitors in 2007 near the Tonawanda Coke plant that helped uncover the release of high benzene levels and other toxins into the surrounding area. The stunning revelation that benzene was found in levels 10 times higher than is considered safe came despite DEC employees conducting direct oversight of the plant for more than two decades.
The plant’s former environmental manager faces a lengthy prison sentence and the plant owner J.D. Crane may have to pay up to $200 million in fines during a March federal court sentencing, after the company was found guilty of widespread violations of the Clean Air Act.
Two air monitors still remain near the Grand Island Bridge as well as the Brookside Terrace neighborhood in Tonawanda, while 52 industrial sites in a 2-square-mile area continue to emit dangerously high levels of toxins into the air, Heaney said.
Heaney, who had not yet seen the report when interviewed by the Tonawanda News this week, said while the statement released by Martens doesn’t specifically mention a reductions in air monitors in the Buffalo area, including one near the Peace Bridge and another in the vicinity of the Galleria Mall, it does appear to clash with public interest.
“My first reaction is that we look forward to reading the reports in great detail and seeing if their plans make sense for the community we work with,” she said. “It does appear that it will be working to limit monitoring and that’s exactly what our community doesn’t want. It seems counterintuitive. Air monitoring has a really important role in making the community safe.”
Requests for interviews with DEC officials on Friday were not immediately answered, but Martens’ statement said air monitoring policies have not been updated since 1992, while the focus of any potential policy change would give his outfit more leeway in determining criteria for the use of air monitors.
“This policy will clarify instances when environmental monitors should be employed to monitor activities at regulated facilities, site or activities providing businesses, local governments and other regulated entities a clear framework under which environmental monitoring services will be required,” Martens said in the statement.
A DEC spokeswoman contacted Friday did not respond to a request for comments on how the new policy might specifically impact the air monitors in Western New York.Contact reporter Michael Regan at 693-1000, ext. 4115.