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Gibbs rallies residents fighting air pollution in Tonawanda area

A nationally known environmental activist gave advice and moral support Friday to a local group battling air pollution, but told the residents that responsibility for winning the fight rests with them.

Lois Gibbs rallied residents and members of the Clean Air Coalition of Western New York at a news conference and community meeting Friday afternoon in the Town of Tonawanda. The former Niagara Falls resident, who rose to prominence through the Love Canal environmental crisis, is executive director of the Center for Health, Environment and Justice in Falls Church, Va.

The coalition is working to reduce exposure to toxins -- primarily benzene -- produced in the heavily industrial section of the Town of Tonawanda. The group's first target is the River Road plant of Tonawanda Coke, which emits the most benzene of the 45 state-regulated industries in the area.

"Enough is enough," Gibbs said. "Benzene is a no-brainer. Everybody knows benzene causes cancer. There's no scientific quarrel over that."

"Nobody's saying close down Tonawanda Coke. I haven't heard that once," Gibbs said.

Jackie James-Creedon, executive director of the local group, said its request to meet with J.D. Crane, owner of Tonawanda Coke, has been denied. In April, the group will launch a door-to-door campaign to talk to residents and get them to sign a petition requesting a meeting to air their issues.

"What we are going to say [is] we demand that J.D. Crane attend a meeting to hear people's stories," said Charles Cobb, who is working on that campaign.

Residents say exposure to benzene and other toxins has cost them their health and, in some cases, lives.

"It has gotten to the point where you're afraid to even step outside," said Ann Sciandra, a 15-year resident of Kaufman Avenue.

A yearlong air-quality study by the state Department of Environmental Conservation found benzene emissions from Tonawanda Coke equal those of motor vehicles traveling the busy corridor near the south Grand Island bridges.

This week, Erie County Legislator Michele M. Iannello, D-Kenmore, cited benzene emissions in calling upon Gov. David A. Paterson, the State Legislature and Thruway Authority to eliminate tolls at the bridge.

"I feel very strongly that the health of my residents . . . is of the utmost importance," Iannello said Friday.

Gibbs urged residents to work hard toward sitting down with Tonawanda Coke's owner, and offering their help in dealing with the pollution.

"We need him in a room and say, 'What do you need? What do you need to stop doing it?' " she said.

But she emphasized the responsibility for winning the fight was theirs.

"Understand, Lois Gibbs cannot win this for you," she said. "The senator [Antoine M. Thompson, D-Buffalo] and Michele [Iannello] cannot win it for you."

e-mail: jhabuda@buffnews.com

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