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. If found guilty Kamholz faces up to five years in jail or $50,000 per day the plant has been out of compliance.
In January of 2010, the EPA issued Tonawanda Coke three Notices of Violation detailing the changes that must be made at the plant. In June 2011, the EPA signed a compliance order with the company that will reduce benzene emissions from the plan by two-thirds.
A report from the NYS DEC in the fall of 2011 shows that benzene emissions in the neighborhood surrounding the plant have dropped 86%.
Today, the Coalition organizes several communities around environmental health and justice issues. The Coalition 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. The Coalition continues to work in Tonawanda. The Coalition is currently addressing the asthma epidemic on the lower west side of Buffalo by advocating for public policy that will reduce the neighborhood’s exposure to diesel truck emissions. The Coalition also works with residents in the Blackrock neighborhood of Buffalo advocating for an effective, community-led emergency response plan when there are industrial chemical fires.