By David J. Hill
The Tonawanda News
The fight against Tonawanda Coke’s benzene emissions soared to new heights in 2010 as frustrated residents joined with environmental groups — and lawyers — to turn up the heat on the Town of Tonawanda foundry coke producer.
There have been numerous developments in the Tonawanda Coke saga within the past 12 months, making 2010 perhaps the most eventful year to date in the community’s fight to bring the facility into compliance with environmental regulations.
Much of that activity is the result of neighbors who’ve banded together to improve air quality in the Tonawandas. “Public pressure is the reason anything changed at Tonawanda Coke,” said Erin Heaney, executive director of the Clean Air Coalition of WNY.
That change didn’t come easily. “2010 was when years of work finally paid off,” she said, adding, “What happened this year was the result of hundreds of letters written, a rally, community air testing (and) working with countless agencies.”
In case you’ve lost track, here’s a recap of some of the highlights from the past year:
• The most shocking development came in September when the federal government confirmed that Tonawanda Coke grossly underestimated its annual output of the carcinogenic benzene. The Environmental Protection Agency said the plant produces nearly 91 tons per year, nearly 10 times more than what company owner J.D. Crane told the Tonawanda News in an exclusive interview in 2009.
• In September, residents began taking matters into their own hands by teaming up with Buffalo law firm Collins & Brown, which filed a class action suit against Tonawanda Coke, in addition to individual complaints on behalf of residents in the Tonawandas and Grand Island. Those cases also are working their way through the courts.
• In 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.
• In July, Judith Enck, the EPA’s regional administrator for New York, walked the neighborhood near Tonawanda Coke with members of the Clean Air Coalition of WNY to hear directly from residents affected by the plant’s emissions. During the tour, Enck told residents, “I’m very concerned about the toxic emissions and the potential health impact.”
• State officials took aim at the plant in June, 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.
• The EPA took action against Tonawanda Coke in April by ordering the plant to find and fix deficiencies in its operations. In addition, federal regulators mandated that Tonawanda Coke explain a pair of incidents during which coke oven gas was released directly into the air. Moreover, EPA cited Tonawanda Coke for alleged violations of the Clean Air Act.
While there has been plenty of action from state and federal regulators against Tonawanda Coke over the past year, residents remain reluctant to simply sit back and watch. In addition to the Clean Air Coalition of WNY, there’s a new grassroots community group — Citizens United for Justice — that formed over the summer with the intent of filing a lawsuit against Tonawanda Coke.
The group was founded by Clean Air Coalition founder Jackie James-Creedon and City of Tonawanda resident Joyce Hogenkamp. In September, Citizens United for Justice invited affected residents to complete health surveys that will be used as ammunition in their lawsuit. Nearly 200 people attended that forum.
The group is now working with a prominent California environmental attorney to file a complaint against Tonawanda Coke, charging that the facility is the reason for a large number of illnesses in the area.
That community effort is paying dividends.
“Without the community, Tonawanda Coke would still be pumping benzene into the air at disgusting rates. The community has built some real power. Folks showed that they know what needs to change in their neighborhood and they are not going away until it happens,” the Clean Air Coalition’s Heaney said.