For the last six years or so, 15 Tonawanda residents have been taking the air they breathe more seriously than ever.
Some got started after the release of toxicity levels from the Tonawanda Coke plant in 2009, which showed benzene emissions at 9 times the legal limit.
Others were tired of not being able to open their windows out of fear, after losing a relative to cancer or emphysema. A few couldn’t take the smell of chemicals that they say have a likeness to rotten eggs or asphalt.
Most of them live on two quiet streets adjacent to the Niagara River and are surrounded by industry on three sides.
So they got involved, which began by taking random air samples through an expensive process covered by membership fees from the Western New York Clean Air Coalition.
Most often using a bucket device and a hand vacuum, which pulls the air into a bag where it is kept until the sample is sent off to an independent testing laboratory, the volunteers say they measure the hazards in areas not covered by two nearby air monitors maintained by the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation.
For a grassroots organization with 100 members and a 1,000-person mailing list, each $300 test puts a strain on the organization’s budget, especially when it’s conducted several times a year.
But with the DEC announcing Wednesday that they will dole out 60 new devices to individuals and groups across the state through a Community Air Screen Program, the coalition is hoping they can save on those expenditures, though they’ll have to wait for a grant proposal to be accepted first.
On Thursday, in the shadow of the coke plant, which makes a chemical used in the production of steel, six residents stood outside in a light drizzle at a playground on Kaufman Avenue, watching a plume of black smoke rise up in the near distance.