By Alice E. Gerard
Soil samples will be collected from homes in the southeastern part of Grand Island in August, said Jackie James-Creedon, executive director of Citizen Science Community Resources. That soil will be tested for 130 different types of contaminants, including benzene, pesticides, heavy metals and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).
On June 15, at Town Hall, James-Creedon asked Island residents to participate in the comprehensive two-year soil study, either by permitting testing on their lawns or by joining a citizen science team. She especially encouraged high school students between the ages of 15 and 18 to participate in a "Students Become Citizen Scientists" program, which offers community service hours, first-hand experience in data collection, and the opportunity to collaborate with research scientists.
The funding for the comprehensive air and soil study, which costs $711,000, comes from penalties charged on Tonawanda Coke by U.S. District Court Judge William Skretny on March 19, 2014. Tonawanda Coke was convicted of 11 violations of the Clean Air Act, one count of obstruction of justice, and three counts of violating the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. The company was assessed a $12.5 million fine, as well as $12.2 million in community service payments. The community service payments will also fund a comprehensive health study, which will cost $11 million, in the same towns that are the subjects of the soil sampling. In addition, the plant's environmental control manager, Mark Kamholz, was sentenced to a year and a day in federal prison, 100 hours of community service, and a $20,000 fine. He was released from prison in March of 2015.
The study is being conducted by faculty, research staff, and students from the University at Buffalo Department of Chemistry, led by Professor Joseph Gardella; staff from Citizen Sciences Community Resources, led by Jackie James-Creedon; and faculty and students from SUNY Fredonia Department of Chemistry, led by Professor Michael Milligan.
According to Katie Little, an organizer for Citizen Sciences Community Resources, soil testing has already started with "30 points in the Village of Kenmore. SUNY at Buffalo, the lead agency, is analyzing the results." An additional 200 samples will be taken in August, in a two-week period, throughout Grand Island, Tonawanda, Kenmore, and the Riverside neighborhood in Buffalo. The testing will be done for a variety of pollutants, including heavy metals, pesticide residue, volatile organic chemicals, and PCBs.
The emissions from the Tonawanda Coke plant were a byproduct of the coke making process, explained Keith Wilson, a retired chemical engineer, who formerly worked at DuPont. Coke is used as a fuel in blast furnaces at steel mills. Low-ash, low-sulfur bituminous coal is heated in a furnace, and the result is coke.
"It is very much like putting wood in a furnace to produce ash. They are burning it up, trying to get rid of some bad things in there, and that might be what the pollutants are, including benzene (a known carcinogen). Coke is a fuel, with a high carbon content, which is helpful in making steel. It doesn't have a lot of impurities in it. It is a solid material, which can be made in different sizes, like bricks," Wilson said.
Many problems, however, were ascribed to Tonawanda Coke. Former Tonawanda Coke employee Rich Kazzmarek, a licensed engineer, who ran the company's power plant between 1996 and 1997, described Tonawanda Coke as "a very unsafe place." In two years, he experienced two accidents, which proved to be career ending. He said, that, when he was first injured, "I was coming in on an afternoon shift. The general foreman and one of the operators were trying to get the 7-foot-high boiler under control. They turned so many valves that they didn't know where they started. I was not informed that the boiler was out of control until I got to the power plant." He initiated a shutdown procedure. Unable to see through the steam produced by the boiler, Kazzmarek went over the railing and landed two stories down. After the boiler was shut down, he was taken to Kenmore Mercy Hospital by pickup truck. "They don't allow ambulances and cop cars on the premises," he said.
The second time that Kazzmarek was injured, "A contractor hit the building and a steel overhead door came down and hit me. I went out on disability." He suffered from spinal and cervical damage, as well as knee damage, as a result of the two accidents.
"The plant should have been shut down decades ago," Kazzmarek said. "They'd been polluting for decades. The ovens produced hydrogen gas, one of the first chemicals that comes off coal. It was supposed to go through a series of cleaners and filters, but none of them worked." He said that the safety valves had not been tested in decades and that operators were told not to make those tests.
Wilson described the environment at Tonawanda Coke as "a mess." He said that the defects in the system that led to accidents were also part of the culture that led to the pollution. The biggest mistake that the company made, he said, was to ignore regulatory agencies, including such federal agencies as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, as well as New York State's Department of Environmental Conservation.
James-Creedon said that, before she was aware of the emissions from Tonawanda Coke, she knew that there was a problem. "We knew that the air stank, and we thought that it had something to do with our illnesses." She had been diagnosed with fibromyalgia in 2003. James-Creedon, who was one of the founding members of a "bucket brigade," went with the group to see Al Carlacci, an engineer with the New York state Department of Environmental Conservation. "His listened to us," she said.
High-tech air monitors were used to test the air between 2007 and 2008. It was found that benzene levels 75 times the EPA's guidelines were in the air and that Tonawanda Coke was the main source of the pollution. The foul smell extended to the area near the South Grand Island Bridge, where people commonly believed that the cause of the odor was oil tanks.
Directly across the river, in the southeastern portion of Grand Island, a variety of cancers and other health problems have been observed. Trisha Mortellaro, who also has fibromyalgia, has a 5-year-old son who was diagnosed with a rare cancer, called Langerhans cell histiocytosis, at the age of 2-and-a-half. "One of the things that they found is that his cancer could be potentially caused by exposure to benzene. That is what piqued my interest more, because of the benzene. Right now, we just had an MRI done; the lesion is gone, but there is still a compressionary (an area where the bone is gone, so they have to wait for it to remodel.) He does pretty good, doesn't have a lot of issues, and has a higher tolerance for pain. He starts kindergarten in the fall."
One man, who asked to be identified only as a resident of Baseline Road, between Fix and Bush roads, said, "I had six operations for cancer and two series of radiation. I have a rare form of cancer, called soft tissue sarcoma. My neighbor to the north of me and his son had sarcoma, but they had it in the joints. I was diagnosed for the first time 14 years ago, and I had a lump on my shoulder the size of a small orange. My neighbor had brain cancer. My neighbor across the street had brain cancer. The woman across the street from us had breast cancer. There's a number of cancer patients on Fernwood, as well. It's widely known at Roswell Park Cancer Institute that the south end of Grand Island has a large quantity of cancer problems." He said, however, that, because he worked with a large variety of chemicals as a printing company employee for 27 years, he cannot pinpoint the cause of his cancer.
Grand Island Town Supervisor Nathan McMurray said, "Some people are afraid that the soil studies will hurt property values. If you are living in a best-case scenario, your property is fine. In a worst-case scenario, at least you know, and you can take steps to keep your property and family safe. By not getting involved, you may be missing out on an opportunity for civil action against these people, as well. It's something that people who were wronged may be able to take advantage of."
"I would love to be involved in the soil studies and the health studies. I know a lot of people are afraid that they will find contaminated soil and property values could decrease," Mortellaro said. Wilson said that he also planned to volunteer in the soil and health studies.
"Be courageous," McMurray said. "The reason why Tonawanda Coke was stopped in the first place is because some citizens were courageous. They were vilified and attacked and fearful to find out the truth. They knew that it may hurt property values. But because they had courage, we are all breathing much cleaner air today."
To volunteer for the project, call Citizen Science Community Resources at 873-6191 or send an email to [email protected]