By John J. Hopkins
The Tonawanda News
Local environmental activists didn’t back down in 2011 after scoring some big victories in 2010, and their battle has led to cleaner air.
A presentation in October by the state Department of Environmental Conservation 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.
Gentile reported reductions in each chemical — including benzene, butadiene, acetaldehyde, acrolein and formaldehyde — over the three year period since the initial study was conducted.
Overall, reductions were reported at 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.
“We’ve made some important progress here and we’re seeing it in the numbers,” DEC air quality expert Tom Gentile said.
Benzene, a carcinogen, is emitted from factories in the area near River Road including Tonawanda Coke Corporation, NOCO, Yerkes, NRG Huntley, Sunoco, and “mobile sources” like cars and trucks.
Confirmation from the federal government in September 2010 that Tonawanda Coke grossly underestimated its annual output of benzene helped lead to steps to improve the air quality in the Tonawandas.
While the foundry coke producer was the main source for high levels of benzene — a known carcinogen — in the air, the Clean Air Coalition announced in February that it was turning its sights on other producers.
“We’re going to deal with the cumulative impact of industry on our health,” Clean Air Coalition Executive Director Erin Heaney said. “Despite a lot of progress at Tonawanda Coke, there’s still a lot of work to be done. There’s still odors in the community, and there’s still smoke.”
The group mapped out a plan called “TAPP,” or Tonawanda Air Pilot Project, to address the large number of polluters in the region.
A second group, the Citizens United for Justice, filed a lawsuit against Tonawanda Coke in state Supreme Court in June alleging numerous violations the plant was cited for in recent years are responsible for illness among 260 plaintiffs who are seeking damages. One of the attorneys representing the group is Joe Gonzalez, a colleague of legendary attorney Erin Brokovich.
The EPA in July announced that Tonawanda Coke was working with them to make repairs that are expected to cut benzene emissions by up to two-thirds at the River Road plant. The company will install a new ammonia scrubber at the plant and modify a piece of equipment that is designed to cool the coke oven gas to condense out tars and other impurities, EPA spokesman Elias Rodriguez said.
“Our evaluation of the facility is going on multiple fronts but this is focused on the clean air portion,” Rodriguez added.