Tonawanda News

The Town

March 29, 2013

Thursday's verdict years in the making for citizen activists

TOWN OF TONAWANDA — Neighbors in those first small living room gatherings, wondering aloud about what was causing those foul odors, could never have imagined it leading to this.

Those first members could never have known their small group of committed citizens could change so much. 

But they did.

"We finally feel that our work for the past five to 10 years has been worth it," Clean Air Coalition Director Erin Heaney said. 

That work culminated Thursday in a stunning victory for the little guys when a jury convicted Tonawanda Coke and its environmental manager on nearly all of the 19 counts against them in federal court.

They set out to prove the air they were breathing was dangerously polluted — and that one local business was to blame. Pressing forward day after day, year after year, they made their case.

Here's how they did it.

The early days

Slowly but surely, the number of concerned residents began to swell. In 2005, activist leader Jackie James-Creedon officially founded the Clean Air Coalition. 

The coalition's work quickly became focused on Tonawanda Coke, a facility that's been open since 1917 and operated by the current owner, J.D. Crane, since 1978. Through the coalition, residents lobbied the state Department of Environmental Conservation, and informed them of their concerns about the town's air quality.

The DEC responded to the campaign by installing air quality monitors in July 2007, and as the agency was collecting its data, written complaints about health issues — residents reporting burning sensations in their eyes and throats among other health problems — began flooding into the DEC.

It was the first acknowledgment by state regulators that something might be amiss and the data collected could once and for all settle the debate. Were those odors truly harmful or just a nuisance that many wrote off as a trade-off for job-providing industries operating in the town?

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