By Jessica Bagley
The Tonawanda News
Tonawanda News — TOWN OF TONAWANDA — A group of local residents gathered in the town Wednesday night to yet again discuss the hazardous and potentially deadly environmental conditions in the area — but this time, activists said they see change on the horizon.
"I'm writing to the Department of Environmental Conservation and the Environmental Protection Agency, and just so you know, we've got their ear," said Jackie James Creedon, the founder of the Tonawanda Community Fund and an environmental activist. "I'm hopeful we're going to be able to move forward with this."
The public meeting, put on by the Tonawanda Community Fund and the group's sponsor, the Wellness Institute, focused on the fund's recent soil testing completed in the industrial corridor in the Town of Tonawanda. The soil tests portrayed a frightening picture for the area's health, but Creedon and others are hoping they will act as impediments for change.
"It is a process, and it may take a long time," Phil Haberstro, of the Wellness Institute, said. "But if we stay together, we'll prevail over time."
The meeting began with Creedon explaining the testing she initiated after a reporter from an Alabama TV station told her about soil testing that had been completed in north Birmingham where two coke foundries operate.
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 EPA began a study of the soil and air in Birmingham in 2009, and even shoveled soil out of some area yards. The EPA is continuing to conduct additional monitoring of the area surrounding the plants, hoping to identify the source and remedy the emission problem.
"I thought to myself — hmm," Creedon, who has openly criticized Tonawanda Coke for years, said. "I wonder if we have some of those same chemicals here in Tonawanda."
Creedon was inspired and worried by the results, and decided to begin her own soil testing in the town. She, along with other fund members, Andrew Baumgartner and Charles Matteliano, took samples from a playground and five homes near the factories on River Road as part of preliminary, small study. They also completed a control test in Beaver Island State Park, a mile away from the industrial area and upwind from the plant’s emissions.
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 five yards that were tested met that criteria.
Then, two weeks after Creedon released the study results, the state Department of Health released their own data.
The DOH study found “statistically significant elevations” of lung cancer and bladder cancer in both males and females, esophageal cancer in males and uterine cancer in females, as well as oral-cavity/pharynx cancer in males and leukemia among women.
The DOH also found evidence of elevated preterm births and heart defects in newborns.
But the DOH study was not able to prove what caused the many illnesses, and the agency's silence on factories' culpability frustrated many locals.
But Creedon is hoping the EPA and DEC can connect the dots and lay the blame on Tonawanda Coke for polluting the air, soil and water and making residents sick.
"They are the only plant that has not installed emissions controls ... they don't have the required baffles in quench towers — so guess where the soot goes," Creedon said.
Creedon said she is writing to the EPA and DEC, asking them to complete more soil testing, make Tonawanda Coke install emissions controls and meet with Tonawanda community members by June 1.
Attendees provided Creedon with their own input on what to do next, and expressed their own concerns about their health.
Joyce Hogenkamp, president of Citizens United for Justice, encouraged the audience to attend the government's case against Tonawanda Coke. The ongoing jury trial is the result of a 19-count indictment against the plant and its environmental manager, Mark Kamholz, for allegedly violating federal environmental regulations.
"You then give a face to the people who have been poisoned and hurt through the years," she said.Contact reporter Jessica Bagley at 693-1000, ext. 4150