Pollution risks in Niagara Falls
Joe Cessna’s neighbors include chemical plants that are as much a part of the Niagara Falls landscape as the Cataracts.
He’s constantly reminded of their presence. There’s the “nasty smell” that permeates his neighborhood and the greasy film that coats his pool in the summer and car year-round.
“I can wash my car and within a couple of hours there’s a film on it,” he said.
“Everybody says it’s safe, but you’ve got to wonder.”
Cessna has good reason to wonder. And perhaps worry.
Twenty-six industrial plants in Niagara County, most of the larger ones located in Niagara Falls, reported the release of 170 tons of pollutants, including some carcinogens, in 2011, the last year for which comparable data are available.
This potentially toxic cocktail puts Niagara County residents at greater risk to develop pollution-related health problems than most Americans, an Investigative Post analysis of federal data found.
The risk – determined by the volume and toxicity of pollutants and how many people are exposed to them – is higher in Niagara County than in nine out of every 10 counties across the United States where plant emissions are reported to the federal government, Investigative Post determined.
Put another way, the potential health risk to residents in Niagara Falls, where the county’s largest polluters are concentrated, is 2 ½ times greater than for people living near Tonawanda Coke and other plants in and around the Town of Tonawanda.
Emissions from one company – Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. – account for almost half the risk the pollution potentially poses to public health in Niagara County, Investigative Post determined.
While emissions from the plant on 56th Street are well below the limits set by regulators, the facility’s risk score as determined by the Environmental Protection Agency is higher than a vast majority of similar operations around the nation.
Goodyear’s risk score is driven by its release of two probable carcinogens – ortho-toluidine (or-tho-tuh-loo-i-deen) and to a lesser degree aniline (an-l-in) – that are linked to bladder cancer.
Two federal studies have found high rates of cancer among workers at this Goodyear plant. In addition, an Investigative Post analysis found elevated rates of bladder cancer in seven of 10 nearby Census block groups downwind of Goodyear and several other chemical plants.
The data do not establish plant emissions as a contributing cause to the bladder cancer. Still, the elevated cancer rates raise a “red flag,” said William Scheider, a local environmental health scientist who assisted Investigative Post in its analysis.
“I would like to see a health assessment done by government authorities,” he said. “I have some real concerns about what we don’t know.”
Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster asked state environmental regulators in November 2013 for a study to determine the public health impacts of air pollution in and around Niagara Falls.
“The need for a sound scientific assessment of these public health concerns, as expressed by the public and echoed by me here, seems indisputable,” he wrote in his request.
But neither state nor federal officials have been willing to undertake such a study.
Goodyear officials refused numerous interview requests, but in a statement said the plant’s emissions are significantly below the limits set by its state air permit.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation also expressed confidence that neither the plant nor the air pollution poses a health risk to nearby residents.
“If there is a problem we are going to address it, but we haven’t really seen that,” said Abby Snyder, DEC’s director of the division responsible for Western New York.
Industry critical to economy
While best known as a tourist attraction, Niagara Falls has long relied on industry as the bedrock of its economy. A range of industries, including those in the chemical sector, were attracted to Niagara Falls generations ago because of the abundance of low-cost hydropower.
Industrial activity peaked in the 1960s, and while many plants have since closed or scaled back operations, industry remains a major employer. The county’s manufacturing sector employed 8,164 people in 2011, accounting for 14 percent of the private sector workforce and 26 percent of wages paid.
Along with jobs comes pollution, however.
The air in Niagara County includes five possible carcinogenic chemicals and more than 30 other pollutants known to trigger health problems.
“I was always curious about if it was anything that would affect anybody’s health, if it was any carcinogens,” said Cindy Harding, who lives off 56th Street.
Investigative Post’s analysis is based on data collected by the EPA that tracks the amounts of chemicals released by some 22,000 companies in 2,437 counties across the United States. The pollution is self-reported by the companies.
The EPA uses this data to create a risk score for each facility that is based on the toxicity of each chemical, the amount released into the air and the number of people potentially exposed.
Emissions from just three companies account for 91 percent of Niagara County’s risk score.
Goodyear has the highest rank because of its ortho-toluidine and aniline emissions. The company’s emissions account for 47 percent of the county’s overall risk score.
DuPont Niagara Falls on Buffalo Avenue ranks second because of its release of chlorine, accounting for 27 percent of the risk score in Niagara County.
Buffalo Pumps Inc. on Oliver Street in North Tonawanda ranks third because of its copper and nickel emissions. Its releases make up 17 percent of the county’s risk score.
No other company accounted for more than 2 percent of the county’s risk score.
The risk scores for these three plants are not only high in comparison with other companies operating in Niagara County, but to similar facilities around the United States, the Investigative Post analysis found.
The emissions of the three companies are allowable under permits issued by the state, and none have been cited recently for violations.
However, the pollution released by these and other companies is a source of concern for nearby residents.
“I just know it smells really bad, it just has a terrible, I mean it’s a really bad odor,” Harding said.
“I’ve lived here all my life and it’s just one thing after another,” added Cessna, who also lives near Goodyear and other chemical plants. “I’ve called the EPA to try to get something checked on it and nobody ever does nothing.”
Risk scores are much lower for some other well-known companies operating in Niagara County.
For example, air emissions at Occidental Chemical Corp. in Niagara Falls have dropped dramatically over the years and the plant’s risk score is now a fraction of the score of the largest polluters in Niagara County.
Toxic releases at Olin Corp. in Niagara Falls have risen slightly in recent years but its risk score remains relatively low.
The risk score for the Somerset Operating Co.’s coal-fired power plant in Somerset is also relatively low, even though the facility ranks as one of the state’s largest producers of greenhouse gasses.
Yet, Dyster said the cumulative impact of the assorted pollutants poses “a very interesting scientific research question” that the mayor wants studied.
“But of course the problem is that none of the industries that are producers have a particular economic interest to invest in getting the answer,” he said.
How all of these chemicals interact in the air and their impact on human health is largely unknown. But officials aren’t prepared to conduct the kind of study that Dyster has called for.
“Right now, we don’t have additional funds available to do that type of sampling,” said Richard Ruvo, the chief of the air programs branch for EPA Region 2, which includes Western New York.
Goodyear’s troubled history
Federal studies have determined that nearly as many Goodyear employees (50) have developed bladder cancer since the 1970s as presently work at the plant (65).
Goodyear’s plant in Niagara Falls manufactures a chemical called Nailax that is used in tires, hoses and other rubber products. Although there are less toxic alternatives, the chemical mixture makes a superior product, said Jim Briggs, the staff representative for the United Steelworkers District 4, which represents plant employees.
“This product prevents dry rotting and cracking of the sidewalls,” Briggs said.
Goodyear’s chemical releases and risk score have dropped considerably since the 1990s, as is the case for many of the companies Investigative Post analyzed. The decline in emissions at Goodyear is attributed to the closing of a polyvinyl chloride plant in 1996 and workplace changes sparked by a union safety campaign.
That effort, Briggs said, was launched in 1988 when the union discovered eight cases of bladder cancer among workers at the Niagara Falls plant. This prompted the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health to investigate.
There had been reckless use of the most toxic chemical the plant uses, Briggs said. For example, he said workers would wash their hands with ortho-toluidine because it would easily remove grime on workers’ hands.
“I believe that the exposure to workers in the ‘60s and ‘70s caused bladder cancer,” Briggs said. “Back in the day we weren’t doing enough to protect the public or the workers.”
Bladder cancer among workers
In 1991, NIOSH published findings of 15 cases of bladder cancer among employees at the plant, which was deemed statistically significant. The agency published a follow-up investigation in 2014 that raised the total to 50 through 2007.
NIOSH concluded that the likely cause of the bladder cancers was the chemical being absorbed into workers’ skin.
Goodyear, in response to the findings, took a number of steps to reduce exposure to the chemicals and test for health problems. As a result, Briggs said, “I think it is a safe place to work.”
“Does that mean that I know the community is safe? No, I don’t know that, but I know this: I feel very confident saying they are safer today than they were before them changes.”
Still, Goodyear emits more ortho-toluidine than any facility in the nation. Although the chemical is no longer produced in the United States, 15 companies still use it.
In addition, Goodyear’s aniline emissions rank seventh highest of 46 facilities in the nation, according to the EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory.
In a prepared statement, Goodyear said “the plant’s ortho-toluidine emissions are extremely low.”
“The plant’s emissions are significantly below the limits set by the air permit, and the plant has operated within state compliance parameters for more than 10 years,” Goodyear said.
Likewise, DEC officials say Goodyear’s emissions are not a danger to public health.
To read more about the cancer history at the Goodyear plant in Niagara Falls, check out this investigation by The Center for Public Integrity
Snyder, DEC’s regional director, said agency officials scrutinized Goodyear’s smokestack emissions in 2010. That data was punched into a model that predicts potential exposure to nearby residents. The results showed that concentrations of ortho-toluidine were a fraction of what the state guidelines would consider potentially harmful to residents.
The same couldn’t be said for the aniline concentrations, however. As a result, Goodyear’s production of Nailax is capped by the DEC to ensure compliance with its state air permit.
However, the DEC’s review does not take into account emissions of these two toxic chemicals that are released via spills, equipment leaks and ventilation systems. Those sources account for almost two-thirds of Goodyear’s total reported emissions of these two chemicals.
Therefore, Scheider and other experts still have concerns.
“At the end of the day they’re still estimates and they’re still models,” said Troy Abel, associate professor of environmental policy at Western Washington University and co-developer of the toxictrends.org website.
“Why isn’t there any monitoring at the fence line when we know this particular facility is dealing with some really toxic chemicals?” he said.
Impact in neighborhood
The government has not recently, if ever, studied whether air pollution from Goodyear or other plants has harmed the health of residents living nearby. But an analysis by Investigative Post found unsettling indicators.
The analysis was done in cooperation with Scheider, who was a research assistant professor at the University at Buffalo before retiring in 2013. He works with nonprofit organizations to address air pollution problems.
The analysis considered state Department of Health cancer data covering a five-year period ending in 2009. Scheider and Investigative Post identified 45 reported cases of bladder cancer in seven of 10 Census block groups downwind of Goodyear and several other chemical plants in Niagara Falls and the Town of Niagara.
The cancer rate, depending on the block group, was anywhere from 2 ½ to 4 times greater than statewide norms.
“These results were statistically significant, unlikely to be due to chance. It’s enough to be concerning,” Scheider said.
However, he said that the analysis must be interpreted with caution because the data it is based on is imprecise. Moreover, most cancers can take up to three decades to surface. Therefore, anyone diagnosed with bladder cancer during that five-year period “was probably exposed in the 1970s or 1980s.”
“Smoking is an important risk factor for bladder cancer,” he added. “We also do not know if occupation had anything to do with it.”
Dyster said he doesn’t know when, or if, his residents will get the peace of mind they want about the cumulative impacts of the air pollution.
“The legacy of Love Canal should make us aware that we as the government, we as citizens, have to be vigilant about the problems that no one is looking for,” he said.
Scheider said it might take some level of community organizing to get answers.
“The residents are in as much of the dark as we are,” Scheider said. “I think the government agencies will do nothing without pressure from the community.”
In the meantime, the uncertainty isn’t enough to convince Cessna to move his family.
“It’s a matter of economics,” Cessna said. “You don’t make a lot of money so this is where you end up.”