Tonawanda News

January 30, 2013

Test reveals cancer-causing soil toxins in town

By Jessica Bagley
The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — TOWN OF TONAWANDA — A local environmental crusader released alarming soil samples showing high levels of a known carcinogen Tuesday and called on governmental agencies to investigate. 

Jackie James Creedon, along with members of her group the Tonawanda Community Fund, initiated the testing after a reporter from an Alabama TV station told her about soil testing that had been completed in north Birmingham where two foundry coke plants operate.

Creedon has been a frequent critic of the Tonawanda Coke plant’s operations.

The results from Birmingham indicated high levels of benzo(a)pyrene, one of the most dangerous chemicals that is formed when burning coal, oil, gas and tobacco. 

According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s website, long-term repeat exposure to benzo(a)pyrene has caused cancer, and, not surprisingly, residents that live in Birmingham have been suffering from serious illnesses. 

“The soil was so toxic, that the EPA was shoveling it out of people’s yards,” Creedon said.

The EPA began a study of the soil and air in Birmingham in 2009, are continuing to conduct additional monitoring of the area surrounding the plants in hopes to identify the source and remedy the emission problem. 

The news from Birmingham both inspired and worried Creedon. She began organizing similar soil tests in the industrial area of the town, including James, Kaufman and Sawyer avenues. 

The fund’s members, Charles Matteliano from TEQ Solutions and Andrew Baumgartner, a student at University of Buffalo, began the study in November. Samples from a playground and five homes were taken, as well as a control test from Beaver Island State Park, a mile away from the industrial area and upwind from the plant’s emissions.

“We found the same chemicals in our soil that were in Birmingham,” Creedon said.

The levels of benzo(a)pyrene in the soil samples were, on average, higher than the sample conducted at Beaver Island, and ranged from 0.5 to 4.1 parts per million.

In Birmingham, the EPA is cleaning up soil that has 1.5 parts per million of benzo(a)pyrene or greater, according to Creedon. In Tonawanda, three out of the seven yards that were tested met that criteria.

She called on the state Department of Environmental Conservation and the EPA to tackle the problem. 

“Why are we being treated differently from Alabama?” Creedon asked. “Why does it take the community to do this testing? I want to hear from our regulators.”

Although there may be more than one culprit, Creedon is pointing her finger at Tonawanda Coke, a plant that has been singled out for years for failing to control its coal-burning emissions. The plant has reduced emissions of another harmful chemical, benzene, but Creedon said her study proves that benzene isn’t the only problem. 

The company is set to defend criminal charges in late February from the United States District Attorney’s Office, which alleges Tonawanda Coke has violated the Clean Air Act, a federal law aimed to control air pollution. 

Matteliano, who helped lead the statistical and engineering portions of the study, said a larger, more comprehensive study needs to be done to assess if Tonawnada Coke is at fault. 

“This was an initial study, to take a few samples and see if the chemicals are present, or if they are not,” he said. “A more in-depth study needs to be done, with a more in-depth look at other chemicals. That is beyond our financial capabilities.” 

A representative from the EPA, Elias Rodriguez, said the agency will review the results from the tests, but didn’t have any further comment on the town’s situation.

“We will then determine what the appropriate next steps would be needed,” Rodriguez said. 

Town of Tonawanda Supervisor Anthony Caruana and state Sen. Mark Grisanti’s chief of staff, Doug Curella, both said they would sign a letter to be sent to the DEC and EPA, asking for more testing.

“We want them to find the source and remediate as quickly as possible,” Caruana said. 

Joseph Waschensky, a resident of Kaufman Avenue whose soil was tested, echoed Caruana’s thoughts.

“A lot of people in my family have had cancer,” he said. “And especially having my own daughter, Madison, playing in the yard ... it’s a big concern.”

Contact reporter Jessica Bagley at 693-1000, ext. 4150