Taking on the Region's Air Polluters

Bill Scheider

Nestled within the borders of the Town of Tonawanda is the largest concentration of regulated industrial facilities in New York State—more than 50, including a coke oven, a coal-fired power generating plant, petroleum storage tanks, manufacturing facilities for Dupont, Dunlop Tire, 3M and General Motors, and several chemical plants. For years, residents of communities bordering and downwind of this industrial corridor have complained not only about the potential health effects of the air pollution, but also the adverse impact on their quality of life resulting from the stench, respiratory problems, burning eyes and deposits of particulate matter in their yards and homes every time the wind carries the pollution in their direction.

Using a theory of change based on direct social action and community empowerment, the Clean Air Coalition of Western New York has successfully campaigned to reduce air pollution from the Tonawanda industrial corridor, with a particular focus on benzene emissions from the Tonawanda Coke Corp. Community members were mobilized through door-to-door canvassing, monthly community meetings and extensive media coverage of the campaign against Tonawanda Coke, and were shown how to effectively voice their concerns publicly, take air samples and advocate on their own behalf in meetings with legislators and regulatory agencies.

The media coverage and community pressure paid off, resulting in a surprise raid on Tonawanda Coke by federal and state authorities in December 2009. As a result of information obtained during the raid, Tonawanda Coke and its environmental control manager faced prosecution and fines if changes were not made at the plant. On July 20, 2011, the company signed an agreement with the EPA that will reduce benzene emissions by two-thirds.

The Clean Air Coalition’s efforts were also instrumental in the adoption of an E3 (Economy, Energy and Environment) initiative for the Town of Tonawanda. Co-sponsored by the EPA, the U.S. departments of Commerce, Interior and Labor, and the Small Business Administration, E3 will provide a framework and resources for six companies in Tonawanda to reduce emissions, not only protecting the community’s health, but also jobs at these facilities. On the West Side of Buffalo, the Clean Air Coalition has begun organizing the community to reduce vehicle emissions that contribute to high asthma prevalence in those neighborhoods.

The School of Public Health and Health Professions has contributed to the growth of the Clean Air Coalition. As a faculty member in the Department of Epidemiology and Environmental Health, I have consulted with the coalition on epidemiologic issues and assisted with organizational development as a member of the board of directors and am the current president of the board. Moreover, two MPH students from the school performed their field experiences with the Clean Air Coalition, and the potential exists for fruitful collaboration in the future