By Neale Gulley
The Tonawanda News
TOWN OF TONAWANDA —
A prominent activist in the fight to expose toxic emissions in the Town of Tonawanda’s industrial section said on Friday that the battle to reign in polluters like Tonawanda Coke is far from over.
Despite a years-long crusade by Jackie James-Creedon and members of the Clean Air Coalition she founded in 2005, hundreds of people who say they’ve been sickened by the air surrounding the plant haven’t seen a dime.
“A lot of times people seem to think it’s over and done with, and it isn’t,” she said.
More than one lawsuit is currently pending against the company on behalf of some 300 residents who allege that cancer and other illnesses prevalent in the area are linked to air quality issues, which the state Department of Conservation last fall said have improved some in the last two years, but still rank among the worst in the nation.
A presentation by the DEC last October showed significant reductions in half a dozen airborne chemicals, chiefly benzene, which had been measured at some of the highest levels in the state during the 2007 study.
“Benzene is only the tip of the iceberg,” James-Creedon said. “They’re only regulating benzene right now — they’re not talking about everything else.”
The list of chemicals also includes butadiene, acetaldehyde, acrolein and formaldehyde, discovered over the three year period since the initial air quality study was conducted, and thought to originate from other businesses in the area in addition to the coke plant, which uses large ovens to render a product used to make steel.
Overall, last year’s DEC report suggested reductions of between 40 percent and 87 percent regarding the chemicals as a whole, with the largest reductions reported of benzene, which is still higher than prescribed guidelines but has decreased by 86 percent in the industrial corridor and 68 percent in the residential area.
“Even though the benzene is down, production is down,” James-Creedon stressed. “So what happens when production goes back up?”
A report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released the previous year, in 2010, showed that Tonawanda Coke is a major source of benzene emissions in the region, and that facility officials, including owner J.D. Crane, significantly underestimated the plant’s benzene emissions.
Crane had previously said — and plant records filed with the EPA have documented — that Tonawanda Coke emits less than 10 tons of benzene into the air annually, even though EPA tests found emissions to be nearly 9 times that amount, at more than 90 tons per year.
Some in the neighborhoods directly south of the plant — streets with names like DuPont and Dunlop Avenue built for workers at the plants — say acrid air causing congestion and irritation associated with such chemicals is still the norm.
Maryanne Aquino, who came home to Western New York from New Jersey and bought her home on DuPont Avenue in 2010, said affordability and a good school system drew her there.
But it wasn’t long after that, that talk of the air in the neighborhood and generations of neighbors describing astronomical levels of cancer in the area gave rise to concern, especially for her newborn child, she said.
“When you talk to the neighbors about the history of the people who have died in this area, it’s all cancer, cancer, cancer — it’s nothing else,” she said.
If that’s not enough, she said foul-smelling air that spiked for a time last summer and then got better for a time is back, most noticeably on Friday morning.
She said last summer, congestion and irritation in her airways resulted in her losing her voice for three weeks. Similar complaints are common in the area.
“It’s like a chemical sore throat, it’s not a sick-type sore throat,” she said. “It’s fumes. I’m not saying per se that it’s just because of Tonawanda Coke but something’s going on.”
James-Creedon has recently started a benefit fund in the hopes of continuing her own air quality testing in the area, and with the more ambitious hope of possibly raising enough to benefit sick people who aren’t covered in pending lawsuits.
Information about the cause is online, on her You Tube channel under her name, and on Facebook under the name of her group, Citizens United for Justice.
Money will also got toward the independent air monitoring she has conducted separately from the DEC for years. Using a bucked fitted with a hose and vacuum pump, she collects air samples for testing at a California laboratory.
But each sample bag costs about $30, and another $300 to test.
Citizens United filed the latest lawsuit targeting Tonawanda Coke last June, this time alleging numerous violations the plant was cited for in recent yeas are responsible for illness among hundreds of neighboring residents who are now seeking damages.
James-Creedon spoke with legendary environmental activist Erin Brokovich, whose colleague, Joe Gonzalez, is one of the lawyers now handling the case.
The community backlash against Tonawanda Coke began in 2005 with the Clean Air Coalition of WNY, which she founded but later left over philosophical differences.
In 2009, after years of public letter-writing and pressure, the state Department of Conservation presented its first air quality report citing “extreme elevations” of benzene in the area surrounding the plant.
The Clean Air Coalition spearheaded much of the push surrounding air testing and reporting in the area, resulting in government action against the plant last year, including the Environmental Protection Agency’s citing of some 27 violations in Tonawanda Coke’s pollution reports. Some of the group’s founding members are now involved with Citizens United to focus on what that means for affected residents.
Officials with Tonawanda Coke are currently barred from speaking publicly about EPA violations, or what they are doing to address them, because of a pending action by the Justice Department.
The EPA took action against Tonawanda Coke by ordering the plant to find and fix deficiencies in its operations. Fines or other punishments have not yet been leveled as environmental agencies have first sought to bring the plant into compliance.
In 2010, the federal government confirmed that Tonawanda Coke grossly underestimated its annual output of the carcinogenic benzene. The EPA said the plant produces nearly 91 tons per year, 10 times the legal limit, which Crane told the Tonawanda News his plant had not gone over.
The following August, Tonawanda Coke Corp. and its environmental control manager, Mark Kamholz, answered to a 20-count grand jury indictment charging them with allowing the release of toxic gases. Both the company and Kamholz pleaded not guilty to the charges. Their case in U.S. District Court is ongoing.
State officials have also taken aim at the plant, citing the plant for violations of the Clean Air Act and air quality emissions limits for opacity, and for violating the company’s air permit.
Contact reporter Neale Gulley at 693-1000, ext. 4114.