Tonawanda News

June 20, 2012

Photo project a show of concern for activists

Project to capture pollution images from residents of the Tonawandas

By Michael Regan,
The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — Tonawanda has the highest concentration of pollution-creating factories and Erie County has the poorest air quality in the state, according to federal and state data.

And it is partly because of those reasons that a local environmental group is asking residents to submit examples of the pollution in the region through a photo exhibit.

The PhotoVoice Project began last year on the West Side of Buffalo near the Peace Bridge, where for decades residents have complained of extreme levels of pollution resulting in a slew of health-related afflictions they say is due to the heavy vehicle traffic idling while crossing the border.

But organizers of the Clean Air Coalition of Western New York, who launched the endeavor, soon discovered there was much more to be had.

It formed partnerships among neighbors, who dug up examples of how pollution was affecting their neighborhoods, and it put real time visual images into the hands of many people who otherwise would have remained uninvolved.

But with 53 factories affecting a 2-square-mile area in the Tonawandas and the leftovers of other forgone industries often leaving brownfields in their wake, Clean Air officials decided it was time to bring their exhibit to the suburbs of the city, where the organization began when it proved that the Tonawanda Coke plant was committing gross violations of state and federal air quality laws.

“We did this on the West Side of Buffalo to start a conversation on the things that people wanted to protect,” said Erin Heaney, executive director of the coalition. “We interact with a lot of folks who want to get involved by don’t necessarily want to be controversial or political. This is perfect for them.”

Danielle Freeland, a Clean Air community organizer, said any type of photo will be accepted, abstract or otherwise, but the real emphasis will be samples of environmental degradation, whether it be pesticides, air or water qualities, or neighborhood issues.

“I’m assuming there will be a lot of photos from the factories,” Freeland said. “One person is going to be focusing on the health of Tonawanda Creek. But others will be showcasing the more positive aspects of the neighborhood in the Sheridan Parkside area, where they’ve put in a sprinkler park behind the community center.”

But the point of the project is largely for residents to investigate pollution in their own backyards and document what they find. Once collected, the photos will be discussed among the community then selected for the exhibition, which is set to take place Sept. 7.

Heaney said she knows that those kinds of grassroots efforts can assist in bringing issues to the forefront and into the public spectrum. She also emphasized that those involved do not need to have a background in environmental issues.

Those who do not have their own camera will be provided one by the organization, Heaney said, while the project itself is free.

“We’re hoping to get folks that have been exposed to a wide range of pollution,” she said. 

The deadline for applications to join the project is Monday. For more information go to or call by phone at


Contact reporter Michael Regan at 693-1000, ext 4115.