By Neale Gulley
The Tonawanda News
The numbers are still somewhat murky but the air is definitely clearer in the Tonawandas based on Department of Environmental Conservation data collected since 2008.
A presentation by DEC air quality expert Tom Gentile 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.
“We’ve made some important progress here and we’re seeing it in the numbers,” he said.
Gentile reported reductions in each chemical — including benzene, butadiene, acetaldehyde, acrolein and formaldehyde — over the three year period since the initial study, prompted by lobbying from the local Clean Air Coalition, was conducted.
Data was presented from air monitors the DEC has maintained ever since, at Grand Island Boulevard (called an industrial area although home to some 300 people) and Brookside Terrace, a mostly residential area. In all, monitors were originally installed in four locations, near the area’s industrial section that is home to some of the largest industrial facilities in the state.
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.
Benzene levels in the mostly residential area where data was compiled are now almost exactly at the state average, which in turn is still higher than the DEC prescribed levels.
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. Companies like 3M, Goodyear and FMC Corp. can be added to the list regarding other chemicals reported in the study.
Since 2007, the DEC, EPA and their lawyers have steadily begun working with, as well as pressuring, the various companies to reign in levels, including the installation of equipment to reduce emissions.
Tonawanda Coke, specifically, had been found to have flagrantly violated public reporting of such emissions, leading to widespread involvement by regulatory agencies and an ongoing compliance plan including expensive repairs and the addition of new technology. Pressure has also been applied to other companies in the area, like NRG, which has installed millions of dollars worth of equipment to reduce emissions.
But Gentile’s numbers show levels in Tonawanda and across the state are still often too high. The Tonawanda study shows that this area commonly leads many other locations in New York in the levels found — most significantly in the industrial corridor.
Data suggests that Erie County as a whole gets the vast majority of pollution like benzene and formaldehyde from automobiles, while the equipment monitoring the Tonawandas shows almost the inverse — most of the higher levels are resulting from factories. Or as DEC puts it, “large stationary sources.”
Residents nearby could have told you that years ago, following the consistently higher-than-usual number of cancer cases in the area. It was stories like theirs along with the occasionally obvious red eyes, coughing and sickness that helped spur the Clean Air Coalition into action in 2006.
A former employee of Tonawanda Coke took the microphone and said the DEC numbers are skewed because production at the factory is currently only at about 60 percent. Tonawanda Coke, which is listed as an emitter of each and every chemical the study measured, likely may never be able to produce at historical highs, he said.
Other findings resulting over the last three years are:
• Levels of the carcinogen Formaldehyde decreased 79 percent near industry and by 40 percent near Brookside.
• Acetaldehyde, also a carcinogen, is now below the state average.
• “1,3 butadiene,” a particularly nasty carcinogen, is now below the state average and below DEC prescribed levels, having dropped by around 87 percent.
• Acrolein, a non-carcinogen, decreased by 49 percent near industry and 50 percent at Brookside, and is also below averages and prescribed levels.
When discussing carcinogens, Gentile said what’s really being discussed is cancer.
Based on a formula the DEC uses to summarize estimated cancer risk levels for use by policy makers, whereby a one in a million chance of environmentally caused cancer is considered ideal, he provided a breakdown of risk associated with current levels of each carcinogen, in both locations.
On benzene levels, the risk dropped from 75 to 10.7 out of a million near industry, and from 15 to 4.8 surrounding Brookside Terrace. Respectively, formaldehyde risk dropped from 98 to 21 and from 38 to 22. Acetaldeyhyde risk levels put those in the industrial area at an estimated risk of 1.7, down from 2.9, and near Brookside, the risk dropped from 2.4 to 1.9.
Butadiene 1,3, now poses a risk of less than one, down from 2.3, and from 2.7 to 0.4 near Brookside.
Gentile said one of the monitors that have been collecting data in the area will likely be shut down due to state budget woes.
Some in attendance expressed worry that doing so could open the door for industry to again begin emitting more chemicals into the air.
“It’s inevitable that eventually one of these monitors is going to get shut down,” Gentile said.
One person asked him if it was safe for the roughly 300 residents living nearby the factories, based on current levels of carcinogens.
“That’s a hard question to answer,” he said. “Would I live there? No, I would not.”