Tonawanda Coke

Dear Islanders;

Last week I wrote about pollution in an abstract way, referring to old stories and myths. But this week I want to talk about pollution in a concrete, scientific way. 

There is a study about to start. That study (through the chemical analysis of residential soils on Grand Island and surrounding areas) will help us understand the level of air pollution deposited in our yards, and help identify hotspots of contamination. The more that we know about this pollution, the more equipped we will be to help our community diminish the negative impact of pollution on the health of our families, including cleanups and other forms of remediation.

Tonawanda Coke

Where do we think a large part of those pollution deposits come from? You only have to glance over to those three looming towers in the distance across the river: Tonawanda Coke.

Tonawanda Coke has nothing to do with the soft drink. Coke is essentially coal that has been processed to burn at a higher temperature. It’s used to manufacture steel and other products. But making it is messy. And Tonawanda Coke is a proven polluter, of the most egregious sort. The company—once led by J.D. Crane, who in my opinion even looked like a central casting version of a mustache twirling villain—committed serious crimes. I have flown over Tonawanda Coke in a helicopter (I know I get into trouble when I do that). And let me tell you, it looks like a giant scar on the earth’s surface, complete with fuming black smoke like Mordor itself. 

How the study will work

The study will be carried out by The University at Buffalo, Citizen Science Community Resources, and other agencies. Funds for the project will come from a criminal penalty on Tonawanda Coke for illegal contamination. Specifically, in 2013 they were found guilty of violations of many parts of the U.S. Clean Air Act. The total penalties on Tonawanda Coke is somewhere close to 50 million dollars. 

Those collecting the data will need permission to enter your yard. The people collecting the data will be volunteers, not special agents in hazmat suits. It will all be very low key. But as is the case when anyone wants access to your land, feel free to turn them away if you are not interested or comfortable.

Some may say this study, and drawing attention to these issues, is bad for Grand Island. They will argue that it hurts property values and it’s all just crying over spilled milk, harms that can never be addressed. But I believe knowledge is power. Further, the cat is already out of the bag. The Tonawanda Coke story was a national story; everyone knows about it. It would be foolish not to study the impact of the crimes. And we need to not only understand the crimes, but we must also defend our town against other bad actors. 

Grand Island is surrounded by threats

There are 50 companies, including Tonawanda Coke, that have air emission permits near the South Bridge. There is nowhere else in New York that has such a concentration. A 2008 study, which was used to crack down on Tonawanda Coke, showed that air pollution levels at Beaver Island were worse than New York City.  Please understand, the reason they chose Beaver Island for their study initially was to show a contrast with the pollution in Tonawanda. No one expected the pollution here to be so intense. We cannot assume the worst is behind us. Just because Tonawanda Coke is belching out less, does not mean there are no other threats. And the most troubling part is, some of the worst types of emissions you can’t see, touch, or feel. 

Do not be afraid; arm yourself with knowledge and a bucket

Many people were involved in the efforts to crack down on Tonawanda Coke. But one person in particular played a huge role: Jackie James Creedon. Jackie describes herself as a Mom, a wife, and a scientist. That last role came to her unexpectedly about 10 years ago, after being diagnosed with fibromyalgia.

She wanted to understand how she became afflicted with the painful disease. And with the help of a few neighbors, she decided to investigate the air she breathed using simple bucket tests. After taking samples, she exposed a horrifying truth. The air she, and her family and friends, was breathing was laced with enormous amounts of benzene—a carcinogen—that’s linked to leukemia, cancer, and other illnesses. Thankfully, her early work eventually led to the larger studies that forced Tonawanda Coke to stop hurting us all.  

Meet Jackie on December 3rd at Town Hall

Today Jackie helps lead the Citizen Science Community Resources that will undertake the soil study. On the morning of December 3rd at Town Hall on Grand Island, Jackie will be conducting a presentation on the study and on citizen science. That presentation will allow you to ask questions. Also, Jackie hopes to show results from the first 20 samples taken from Grand Island. More information to come, but please mark your calendars.


UPDATE: When I ran for office I promised that we would get that Dunlop Building open or torn down. This week we came a long way to getting that goal accomplished. The first building permit was issued for construction work on the new hotel that will hopefully open next year. That means, work could start next week! Now, I don’t want to celebrate yet, but I will say this. It took a lot to get this point. Most importantly, it took cooperation among the Town Hall leadership.

You know by now I’m a hard driving personality. I like to get things done. Politics, for lack of a better term, are a much lower priority. But sometimes you need a little finesse with your smash mouth techniques. Deputy Supervisor Sharpe often helps me see that. And this week Councilman Billica helped me see that a bit to. And the three of us worked with our code enforcement team (who I also take my hat off to) to overcome our differences and get this project to the next level. I’m cautiously optimistic, but undeniably excited. Hopefully there will be lights on in that building soon. After decades of decay, that day can't come soon enough! 

With highest regards,