“It’s not anything that I ate. It’s not anything that I drank,” said Thomson. “It’s from living here and breathing the air.”
Residents started in 2004 by using buckets and hand-held vacuums to test the air. They found shockingly high levels of benzene. With a hint from a state regulator, they figured out the main source was a plant called Tonawanda Coke Corp., a relic of the industrial age that since 1917 has been producing material needed for smelting iron.
It took five years of prodding before state regulators formally blamed Tonawanda Coke for the high levels of benzene and moved aggressively to enforce the Clean Air Act. Finally in 2009 the state, together with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, swooped down on the plant for a week-long surprise inspection. Inspectors found it in such a state of disrepair that huge amounts of benzene and other dangerous chemicals were seeping from cracks in worn-out equipment and leaky pipes.
The case highlights not just possible corporate wrongdoing but the risks posed to communities around the country by an environmental regulatory system that largely entrusts companies to disclose how much toxic pollution they emit, and can take years to act once violations are discovered.
Even after regulators forced the firm to fix blatant sources of benzene, sophisticated measuring equipment found the solvent seeping out of the plant at a rate of 91 tons per year, according to an EPA analysis. That was almost 30 times higher than the 6,754 pounds the firm had reported to the EPA in 2009 as part of the Toxics Release Inventory. Benzene has been associated with blood disorders, infertility, and cancer, especially leukemia.
Many people in this community wonder why it took government agencies so long to start scrutinizing such an obvious source of toxic air. But the story of Tonawanda Coke is also a modern day parable about the clout citizens can wield when they dig in their heels and demand healthy air.
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Over 200 people suing Tonawanda Coke