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Jackie James-Creedon of the Town of Tonawanda, who founded the Clean Air Coalition of Western New York eight years ago, wants Tonawanda Coke to reduce benzene to safer levels.
Harry Scull Jr. /Buffalo News

FOCUS: ENVIRONMENT

Study finds danger in the air around Tonawanda Coke

State DEC says River Road plant emits benzene up to 75 times higher than recommended guidelines, stirring calls for action

News Staff Reporter

Lovisa Anderson ticks off the names of all the people who have had cancer, living and dead, within seven houses of her home on East River Road on Grand Island.

Anderson, 67, counts seven, including herself. She has ovarian cancer that was diagnosed last year, and has since spread to her lymph nodes.

"You're fighting for your life all the time," she said.

Jeani Thomson of the Town of Tonawanda had been diagnosed with three different cancers until 10 days ago, when she learned of a fourth. That, she said, isn't as unusual as it sounds.

"Everybody around here has thyroid [cancer]. People have a lot of leukemia, brain tumor stuff, skin cancer is like everywhere, lupus, fibromyalgia," she said.

Their stories are numbingly familiar to people who live in the vicinity of Tonawanda Coke Corp. The coke foundry recently was found by the state Department of Environmental Conservation to be emitting benzene, a carcinogen, up to 75 times higher than recommended guidelines. Those levels were up to 2 times more than what the company reported to regulators.

Benzene has been linked to several cancers, notably leukemia, and can damage the immune system and bone marrow, impair fertility in women and irritate the skin, eyes and upper respiratory tract.

The findings brought vindication of sorts to residents who have long suspected the plant spewed high levels of cancer-causing pollutants during the chemical process that makes black, cauliflower-shaped coke for the steel industry.

Tonawanda Coke executives refused to respond to repeated requests to comment last week by The Buffalo News.

The yearlong air quality study and a more extensive one taken inside and around Tonawanda Coke by the federal Environmental Protection Agency has raised the hopes of the Clean Air Coalition of Western New York that government agencies will reduce benzene amounts coming from the plant to a safer level.

Speakers made those demands at a spirited rally attended by 75 people Wednesday outside Tonawanda Coke.

"I started this [campaign] because of my own health issues, but it's gotten a lot bigger than that right now," said Jackie James-Creedon, a mother of two who founded the group eight years ago after being stricken with fibromyalgia, an autoimmune disease, in her mid-30s.

Tonawanda Coke is one of 52 air-regulated facilities within a five-mile radius in the Town of Tonawanda, plus sections of Interstates 190 and 290, that are sources of benzene. It is the largest producer of benzene among regional manufacturers, releasing, by its own reporting, 9,568 pounds in a year in the 2006 EPA Toxic Release Inventory.

"Tonawanda Coke is a predominant source of benzene in the community," said Tom Gentile, chief of the state Department of Environmental Conservation's Air Toxics Section.

Owner rejects study

While Tonawanda Coke owner J.D. Crane has refused to speak with media or community groups for years, he shared his views in an August letter to Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y. It came two months after the senator's letter said the DEC study presented "irrefutable evidence" that Tonawanda Coke was the major source of benzene in the region.

In Crane's letter, obtained by The News, he rejected the DEC's findings and Schumer's request to develop a benzene-reduction plan.

"A claim that any specific manufacturing or industrial facility in Tonawanda is directly responsible for regional levels of benzene in excess of air quality standards cannot be substantiated," Crane wrote.

He said the company was in "full compliance with its lawfully issued DEC air permit," and placed blame for high benzene levels on motor vehicle exhaust. "Our company has been a good neighbor in the Town of Tonawanda for decades," Crane said in conclusion, noting significant plant investment, job creation and tax revenues.

Larry Sitzman, DEC's air pollution control engineer for Region 9, said Crane's insistence that motor vehicles were the main cause of benzene emissions was wrong.

"Our study didn't show that; our study showed that the largest impact of benzene in the area emanates from Tonawanda Coke," Sitzman said.

He also said the question of the plant's being in "full compliance" with its DEC permit is under investigation.

Schumer, in a statement released to The News on Friday, said, "Tonawanda Coke has a responsibility to engage -- not to stonewall -- nearby residents."

Coal to coke Tonawanda Coke, located at 3875 River Road, sits on a 188-acre site along the Niagara River. Crane acquired the plant and its five miles of railroad track from Allied Chemical in 1978, and employs about 100 workers of the United Steelworkers of America Local 4447.

The plant produces high-quality foundry coke for use in melting metal and removing impurities in steel manufacturing. The complex chemical process to make coke creates extremely dangerous vapors, including benzene.

It also causes some of the unpleasant odors that force residents to flee indoors, and produces soot that coats homes and cars.

Tom Ryan knows all about the smell of rotting eggs and burning tar. For the past 33 years, he has lived in sight of the plant on Kaufman Street in the Town of Tonawanda. Ryan, 69, has skin cancer and heart ailments, and his wife, Kathleen, has had breast cancer.

Three cats died of leukemia.

"When that coal gas comes across here, it chokes me. I have to grab my oxygen bottle or machine," Ryan said. "If it wasn't for that, I couldn't breathe."

He wonders what the health effects are on the children who play on the playground across from his home.

"If the soot settles on my car, and settles on my house, you can bet it's all in that sandbox, and it's in the wood chips and on the [playground equipment]," he says. "They should put a caution sign that says, "Don't play in this playground, because it's being contaminated by Tonawanda Coke.' "

Ryan is convinced the heaviest and dirtiest emissions occur after dark to hide what the plant is doing.

"Some nights it gets so bad," he said.