Toxic Town of Tonawanda

News and analysis by Dan Telvock, Investigative Post's environmental reporter

There are 53 industrial plants in a 2-mile radius in Tonawanda and it has the highest concentration of air polluters in New York State.

The Clean Air Coalition hosted a “Toxic Tour” Saturday morning and if you haven’t been on one, it’s worth the 90 minutes to get a feeling of what is happening in your backyard. The next tour is Oct. 13.

The odor of petroleum from NOCO, the sweet-smell of benzene from Tonawanda Coke (oxymoron, I know), and the ominous puffs of smoke from the Huntley Power Plant overpower this town. Single-family homes are nestled right in the middle of these industries and the community has suffered from the noise and pollution.

Here are some of the plants highlighted in the tour:

3M Company: One of the top-25 polluters in New York State, this plant manufactures sponges. Carbon disulfide is used here in the production of viscose to make the cellulose sponges. Carbon disulfide causes a host of health problems, including neurotoxic effects.

FMC Chemicals: There was a recent fire at this plant, injuring a firefighter. FMC uses ammonia and numerous other chemicals onsite. What stood out here was the constant noise at this plant, as if a massive fan was running around the clock, disrupting the neighborhood. Industrial and residential is not a good mix, and it’s a sign of poor zoning rules or most likely a lack of them.

 

 

Tonawanda Coke: Neighbors, local activists and the Clean Air Coalition have had success with holding this plant accountable. The Coalition has a breakdown of actions and data for the plant since it started taking the case on.

DEC air monitoring station downwind of Tonawanda Coke plant

They got the state Department of Environmental Conservation to install an air quality monitor downwind from the plant near NOCO and to conduct an air study. What the testing found was extremely high levels of  benzene—highest in the state. After remediation efforts with plant owner J.D. Crane failed, there was an Oct. 6, 2009, rally at the gates of the plant. This rally somehow got the attention of elected leaders in Albany. There was a state and federal raid. Shortly after the raid, the plant’s environmental control officer, Mark L. Kamholz, was taken away in handcuffs on charges of violating the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act and the Clean Air Act. The case is still pending. A consent order has been signed since then and progress is being made. For example, the benzene levels have dropped 86 percent, but they are still the highest in the state.

“A lot of the violations and infractions were identified by the neighbors because they live right here,” said Clean Air Coalition’s director Erin Heaney.

Dupont: The Coalition organized a rally at the Dupont Yerkes plant earlier this year on the same day several powerful elected officials were to arrive. The plant manufactures Corian for countertops. Despite a preventable 2010 fatal explosion at the plant, Gov. Cuomo announced a $550,000 tax credit as part of an economic stimulus plan. In May, the plant was fined $165,000 for violating the EPA’s Clear Air Act.

Huntley plant

Huntley plant: Some health risks at this coal plant are the chromium and mercury compounds. NRG Energy had announced a proposal to turn this plant into a natural gas-fired one as a way to reduce pollution. New York hasn’t approved any permits to get to the natural gas here and the DEC is still investigating hydrofracking in the state as environmentalists, anti-fracking folks and the oil and gas industry eagerly await the decision. Here is some historical background on the plant.