By Michael Regan
The Tonawanda News
— 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.
Minutes later, another, larger gray and white veil similar to a cloud poured out onto the horizon. Then, sure enough, the smell of rotten eggs followed.
Ann Sciandra said it is indicative of what she has endured while living on Kaufman Avenue for the last 16 years. She watched her mother die from cancer in the same home, and said that parents on the thoroughfare are weary of letting their children play outside.
“The government is still keeping an eye on things but I don’t think they’re being aggressive enough,” she said.
Carlos Diaz, 75, and his wife Joan have lived one thoroughfare over on Sawyer Avenue for four decades and have thought about selling their home because of pollution.
“Who is going to buy it?” he asked.
DEC Commissioner Joe Martens said citizen air monitoring program is designed to partner with community groups to conduct air quality surveillance and enable them to take samples to identify their concerns.
“This program focuses on local-scale sampling and empowers environmentally-conscious residents to get involved in improving the air quality in their communities,” he said.
The program is funded through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and is expected to last about a year, with a focus on gaseous pollutants like benzene. If toxicity levels are detected, the DEC will conduct further investigations.
“The Community Air Screen Program will help us understand air quality concerns at the community level,” Martens said.
The deadline for applications are set for May 24, with final decisions being released a month later.