The human cost of pollution: Tonawanda Coke

On Saturday, December 3rd, at the Grand Island Town Hall, there was a presentation on the effects of dangerous levels of pollution in Buffalo, Tonawanda, and Grand Island. There was also an explanation of research that is underway to assess the damage in Buffalo, Tonawanda, and Grand Island from exposure to air pollution.  Contaminants have been found in the soil in the Town of Tonawanda, the City of Tonawanda, the Black Rock/Riverside neighborhoods of the City of Buffalo, and the eastern side of Grand Island. The company that was charged with creating this environmental disaster was Tonawanda Coke, which, in 2013, was found guilty of fourteen criminal charges related to violations of the clean air act and resource conservation and recovery act. In addition, the environmental control manager, Mark Kamholz, was also found guilty and was sentenced to a year in federal prison. He has served his sentence and was released on March 18th, 2015.

As part of its sentence, Tonawanda Coke was required to pay a $12.5 million fine and to pay $12.2 million in community service payments. The community service payments are being used to fund two projects: the Tonawanda Coke Soil Study and a comprehensive health study, which will follow residents in the Town and City of Tonawanda and Grand Island over ten years.

Several presenters at the meeting discussed the effect of the pollution on themselves and their families. They talked about various cancers caused by the pollution:

Grand Island Town Supervisor Nathan McMurray grew up in Tonawanda. His mom was a widow. “My father died at 39 of cancer and left behind seven children.”

Jackie James Creedon talked about long-term exposure to toxic and carcinogenic pollutants. “I grew up in an area called Pretzel Park in Tonawanda. My mom died of COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). I grew up in the 1970s in Tonawanda. I remember the creek catching on fire. The creek was really stinky, and it was loaded with chemicals.

In Jackie’s blog, she said that exposure to pollution caused the deaths of two of her children. Her son died at the age of five of non-Hodgkins Burkitt’s lymphoma, and her daughter died at 27 of glioblastoma (a brain cancer). Her surviving daughter suffers from debilitating headaches.

Jay Farquharson said that his family moved to the southeastern part of Grand Island in 1977. “I saw smokestacks and thought nothing of it.” After completing his education, he went to work in manufacturing. He worked in quality control and was not focused on environmental hazards although, at one point, he went to Beijing, China, which was highly polluted. “There was a green haze that just hung in the air. When you blew your nose, there was black soot in the handkerchief.”

Jay worked in buildings within close proximity of Tonawanda Coke but was not aware of what was going on there.That changed when he saw people from the Department of Environmental Conservation at Tonawanda Coke in 2007. He said that there was a raid in 2010. He said that, by 2013, he learned that 91 tons of benzene had been released into the air. He talked of an elderly gentleman slowly walking, dragging behind oxygen bottles and of a mother who could not put her son to sleep. The child had cancer. “He knew that he would die,” Jay said.

Jay said that he lost his parents and his dog to cancer. He said that he worried about the effects on his health of his own exposure to toxic pollutants.

“Will my son be fatherless?” Jay asked.

Jay said that, when he found out about the dangerous pollution, he scooped up soil and sent it to a friend, who tested the soil for him. The result of the test? The soil was “hot.”

“I want to find out the scope of the contamination. I want to help with the testing,” Jay said.

Joe Gardella is a professor of chemistry at the State University of New York at Buffalo. He works with communities that are affected by historic legacy pollution. He gave information about the research studies that are being conducted. He is working with Mike Milligan of the Fredonia State department of Chemistry, Joshua Wallace (project manager), and Dr. Tammy Milello, who is a GIS specialist. A GIS specialist works with geographic information systems to solve problems, present data, and store information.

The health study, Joe said, will be administered by the State University of New York at Buffalo School of Public Health.

Joe talked about goals of the soil study. “We are hoping to find historic pollution in the area. We are looking for every possible priority pollutant we can. We will sample for heavy metals and a variety of organic EPA priority pollutants. At this point, it is hard to pinpoint an exact source of many of the pollutants. Within a two square mile area, there are 50 companies that hold permits to pollute the air. “This is the highest density of polluters in New York State,” Joe said. Phase one, which involves the collection of soil samples, began in fall of 2016 and will continue into spring of 2017.

The second phase of the project will focus on hot spots, community education, on innovative methods to identify the source of pollutants, and a report to the community of the findings of the soil study.

What is known about Tonawanda Coke, Jackie said, was that it was the source of benzene emissions. Air samples were taken in Tonawanda and Grand Island. “The levels were way beyond what was expected. The source of the benzene was excessive emissions from Tonawanda Coke.” She saw the raid at Tonawanda Coke. “This was the only time that I’ve ever seen armed government agents come and shut down a company.”

Jackie is the executive director of Citizen Science Community Resources. “We are a subcontractor in this project. Tonawanda Coke is paying for us to continue this work.”

Joe said that citizen scientists are needed to be involved in this project. Community members are needed to be part of soil sampling teams and advisory committees.

In Grand Island, soil testing will be done in the southeastern part of the town. Testing will be done of bare soil, two inches deep. Homeowners will be asked if they agree to have the testing done. Any results will be reported first to the homeowners.

Nate McMurray said that the participation of citizens is needed in the research projects. “This has not been thought of as a Grand Island problem. We have found out that parts of Grand Island were extremely polluted.”

The main expense for phase one of the soil study will be the soil testing. Each sample will cost $360, after discounts have been applied.

Jackie said, of people who may believe that they or their families have been adversely affected by carcinogenic and otherwise harmful pollution, “I want to hear from you.”

To contact the Citizen Science Resource Center, email or phone 716.873.6191.

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