The Clean Air Coalition of Western New York was founded by residents in Tonawanda, NY who suspected that their health problems and the neighborhood stink was linked to the 53 industrial plants in their neighborhood. When they found little scientific research on their neighborhood, they did their own. They found others in the community and collected air samples using supplies from Home Depot. Their homemade monitors found high levels of cancerous chemicals in their air.
Under community pressure, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) funded an air quality study. Their study found that benzene levels were 75 times higher than the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) guideline and that Tonawanda Coke, a foundry coke plant, was the predominant source of the emissions. Benzene is a known human carcinogen that causes leukemia, other cancers and skin and respiratory diseases.
The Coalition led a direct-action campaign to hold Tonawanda Coke responsible. Coalition members wrote to, met with and received the support of many elected officials, held a protest at the gates of the company and flooded the phone lines of a government agency that provided public subsidies to Tonawanda Coke.
The media coverage and public pressure generated by Coalition members has resulted in real change. In December of 2009, the US Department of Justice, the US EPA, NYS DEC and US Coast Guard raided Tonawanda Coke with a federal search warrant.
Less than a week later Mark Kamholz, Tonawanda Coke’s Environmental Control Manager was arrested. Since then, he has been indicted for violating 20 federal laws.
Tonawanda Coke was found guilty in March 2013 of breaking 14 federal laws under the Clean Air Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. Mark Kamholz, the environmental control manager, was found guilty on the same counts and an additional count of obstruction of justice. Judge William Skretny sentenced Tonawanda Coke and its environmental control manager on March 19 2014 $12.5 million in fines for the criminal violations of the Clean Air Act and Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, 5 years of probation for the company, $11 million to the University of Buffalo for a 10 year health study & over $700,000 to Citizen Science Community Resources to conduct soil sampling,1 year and 1 day in prison for Mark Kamholz, plus a $20,000 fine and a supervised release after serving the term.
A report from the NYS DEC in the fall of 2016 shows that benzene emissions in the neighborhood surrounding the plant have dropped 92%.
Today, Clean Air organizes several communities around environmental health and justice issues. Clean Air makes Western New York a healthier and greener place to live by running campaigns against institutions that perpetuate environmental injustice, developing grassroots leadership and creating an evidence base that communities can use to advocate with.