EPA spotlights Tonawanda’s ‘citizen science’

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

If it weren’t for local residents and “citizen science,” Tonawanda Coke may still be illegally spewing out tons of toxic benzene from a bleeder valve and hiding it from state regulators.

The Environmental Protection Agency published a video today that focused on the efforts of local residents who about four years ago collected data with the guidance and help of the Clean Air Coalition of Western New York to bring attention to the dangerous pollution in an industrial corridor that has 53 plants in a 2-mile radius.

What they found was shocking: the carcinogenic chemical benzene at levels well beyond what the DEC and EPA consider to be safe.

The residents took there data to the EPA and state Department of Environmental Quality and asked the agencies to certify their work and take action if the data proved to be true. The EPA provided funding so the DEC could install air monitors. Those results were more damning, showing benzene levels 75 times higher than what regulators consider to be safe. Readings for formaldehyde, another known human carcinogen, were also high.

These efforts resulted in a 2009 federal raid of the plant, which ultimately led to the conviction against the coke plant and its environmental manager Mark Kamholz in March. One of the charges against Kamholz was obstruction of justice for misleading  inspectors about the dangerous chemical emissions.

“Citizen Science is a vital fast-growing field in which scientific investigations are conducted by volunteers who collect data to better understand their local environment and help them address issues of concern to them,” said Judith A. Enck, U.S. EPA regional administrator, in a prepared statement. “Projects such as the one in Tonawanda have been remarkably successful in expanding scientific knowledge, raising people’s awareness of their environment and prompting action.”