Students, faculty aid in effort to expose Tonawanda Coke
Corporation pollutes town with carcinogens
Published: Sunday, October 6, 2013
Updated: Sunday, October 6, 2013 23:10
On March 28, the Tonawanda Coke Corporation was convicted on five counts of operating with an unpermitted emissions source and 10 more charges dealing with environmental barriers. Its environmental control officer, Mark Kamholtz, was also convicted on an obstruction charge.
Andrew Baumgartner, a juniorpsychology and nuclear medicine technology major, and Robert Bennett, a juniorchemistry major, played a key role along with faculty and residents on the team that brought Tonawanda Coke’s transgressions to light.
The Tonawanda Coke plant produces foundry coke – an energy source – for steel production and was charged with failing to prevent hazardous materials from permeating the surrounding town.
“A New York State Department of Health study released this year found ‘statistically significant elevations’ of cancer and birth defects among Tonawanda residents. But health officials said the study did not prove local industry caused the health problems,” according to Reuters.
Baumgartner felt it was his responsibility to do what he could to help.
“I grew up in Tonawanda – I’ve lived there all my life,” Baumgartner said. “After the department of health’s cancer survey showed the high cancer rates in Tonawanda, it was really disheartening for me.”
Jackie James-Creedon, a Town of Tonawanda activist and founding member of the Clean Air Coalition and Tonawanda Community Fund, supervised Bennett and Baumgartner.
The group took six 600-gram soil samples in the yards around the factory and combined them to have them analyzed for carcinogens.
The results of the soil testing showed higher than normal levels of heavy metals, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and benzene, which are harmful to the surrounding environment, according to Joseph Gardella, a chemistry professor at UB who advised the group on how to conduct the study.
Baumgartner, who was Bennett’s organic chemistry lab partner, asked him to join the effort.
James-Creedon described the important role Baumgartner and Bennett played, not only in helping to conduct the research but also mentoring and teaching high school students.
The two led a group of students from Kenmore East and West high schools in performing the soil tests.
“They were absolutely phenomenal,” James-Creedon said. “They really took the bull by the horns and did a lot of work.”
James-Creedon considers Baumgartner and Bennett “citizen scientists” – qualified and interested citizens who monitor the conditions in their communities. She added “citizen scientists” keep companies accountable.
“I’m very environmental. I love anything that makes the world cleaner,” Bennett said.
James-Creedon began her fight against Tonawanda Coke in 2003 with what she called the “bucket brigade,” which was the original team that took air samples.
James-Creedon, who graduated from SUNY Fredonia with a degree in chemistry, was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, “a disorder characterized by widespread musculoskeletal pain accompanied by fatigue, sleep, memory and mood issues,” according to mayoclinic.com. She suspected her illness, along with the sickness of other members of the community, could be tied to the fumes around the Tonawanda Coke plant.
Her team discovered the air contained benzene, which “is among the 20 most widely used chemicals in the United States,” and a known cause of cancer, according to the American Cancer Society.
James-Creedon said the incident rate for thyroid cancer in Tonawanda is 81 percent higher than the state average.
More tests followed that led to the involvement of a number of government organizations, including the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department Of Health.
James-Creedon said government agencies are losing funding, which prevents them from monitoring industries as closely as they would like. She said most of these companies are operating under the “honor system” and are self-regulating.
“[Tonawanda Coke was] intransigent about doing its responsibility to protect the residents and workers,” Gardella said in an email.
Though the corporation has been indicted on 15 transgressions, the case is still awaiting sentencing.