Cuomo: Tonawanda health report “very troubling”

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

One of the nation’s biggest environmental trials wrapped up last week in federal court in Buffalo against Tonawanda Coke, almost a month after the state Department of Health released a report that found elevated levels of cancer and birth defects in neighborhoods that surround that industrial corridor.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo was at University at Buffalo this morning to talk about the recently passed state budget and afterwards the press was ushered behind a black curtain in a tight corner to shout out questions on a range of topics.

Someone may not have gotten the governor up to speed on how the state health study comes into context with last week’s guilty verdict against Tonawanda Coke and its environmental control manager for violating the Clean Air and Clean Water acts.

A jury convicted Tonawanda Coke with illegally—and knowingly—emitting benzene from a pressure release valve at levels well above what the Department of Environmental Conservation considers safe.

The state health report found that at least two of the elevated cancers—oral and leukemia—are linked to benzene exposure.

This is “very troubling,” Cuomo said about the findings.

The health study stopped short from pinpointing a chief cause of the cancer.

Is it smoking? Genetics? Exposure at where they work? The concentration of industry that emit toxic chemicals near those neighborhoods?

These question are unlikely to be answered, state health officials said.

Frustration was high for many of the residents who attended a Feb. 26 meeting where state Department of Health officials discussed the report. People wanted to know exactly why so many are sick, but health officials were unwilling to commit to a more in-depth study.

Will Cuomo use his clout and urge the state Department of Health to get to the bottom of this with a cause-and-effect study?

“Let me find out exactly what they’ve done, but we need to have the answers,” he replied.

While that’s no firm commitment for the more than 2,200 people who have some type of cancer in neighborhoods that surround Tonawanda’s industrial corridor, Cuomo did go a step further than did his health department bureaucrats.

Will the governor follow through? Stay tuned.