Air quality in the Tonawandas has significantly improved over the last eight years as levels of certain pollutants continue to fall, state environmental officials announced Tuesday.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation's Tonawanda Air Quality Study ended in mid-2008, but the DEC continues to operate two air quality monitors -- on Grand Island Boulevard and in the Brookside Terrace neighborhood -- and report periodically on findings.
Air quality monitoring showed a 92 percent reduction in benzene from 2008 levels at the Grand Island Boulevard site, and a 74 percent reduction in benzene at the Brookside Terrace site.
"Overall, since we've done the initial study there's been a big improvement in air quality in the Tonawanda area," said Thomas Gentile, chief of the DEC's Air Toxics Section in Albany.
Gentile and another official presented the most recent monitoring data Tuesday night to a crowd of about 35 residents in River Road Fire Hall, at an event organized by Clean Air Coalition.
The updated data pleased environmental activists who have long blamed Tonawanda Coke's harmful emissions for heath problems among residents.
"Hearing that benzene and other hazardous air pollutants in our community have been reduced by nearly 92 percent came as a relief for our community tonight," said Jackie James-Creedon, of Citizen Science Community Resources. "We are breathing cleaner air in our community today because average citizens took action and worked. The DEC should be commended for their supportive work in accomplishing this goal."
Both monitoring sites are downwind of the Tonawanda Coke Corp., which was found to be emitting high levels of toxic benzene from its coke oven. The benzene reductions were attributed to operational modifications made by Tonawanda Coke after DEC and Environmental Protection Agency inspections of the plant, and subsequent enforcement actions.
"That plant was leaking really bad," Gentile said. "Right now, it's not anymore. We're not seeing it."
The modifications include installation of flares to manage the coke oven gas; numerous repairs to address leaks in the coke oven gas system; implementation of an enhanced leak detection and repair program; and total elimination of ammonia emissions.
As a result, a steady decrease in contaminants such as benzene, 1,3-Butadiene and acrolein was recorded, Al Carlacci, an inspector in the Division of Air Resources, told the crowd.
"We're at a point where we're in compliance at the facility and the data that we're measuring shows that we're on par with other areas," Carlacci said, after the presentation. "There's really not much more we can do for this particular facility."
He noted that the facility is currently not operating anywhere near full capacity, but that any future increase in production will not result in a corresponding increase in emissions because they are now controlled.
The cancer risk factor for benzene at the Grand Island Boulevard site went from 75 in 1 million residents to six in 1 million, and 15 in 1 million to four in 1 million at Brookside Terrace, Gentile said.
"It's trending down at both sites," he said. "Things are looking much better than what they were when we first got here and started the study."
Gentile said the DEC will continue air quality monitoring efforts.
"We're still here," Gentile said. "We're still working on it. We still look at the data. We still really care about air quality in the community and we're not going to go away."