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Erie Coke casts a long, unhealthy shadow<br> Cancer diagnoses trouble city's residents

ERIE, Pa. — Nine.

That's the number of people who have contracted cancer on Queen Street, a single block of 15 houses located near the Erie Coke plant.

The tally by longtime residents Steve and Chris Narusewicz includes their 19-year-old daughter, Sara, diagnosed last year with papillary thyroid cancer; Steve's father, who died from prostate cancer; and a brother who succumbed to colon cancer.

"It makes you wonder what [Erie Coke] is doing to the health of people who live here," Chris Narusewicz said from the porch of her asphalt shingle and brick home.

The high incidence of cancer and other health issues near the coke foundry is one of many similarities between this plant and Tonawanda Coke in the Town of Tonawanda.

Both have the same owner, J.D. Crane. Both have been cited for numerous environmental violations — including a $6 million fine leveled in June 2008 against Erie Coke by state regulators — and both have seen a grassroots effort spur government action.

In the case of Erie Coke, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection signed a consent degree with Crane on Thursday, legally binding the company to comply with laws and regulations.

Crane paid the $6 million fine and agreed to pay an estimated $15 million for a schedule of improvements at the antiquated facility aimed at halting the release of dangerous toxins into the atmosphere.

A Crane representative declined to comment for this article.

At Tonawanda Coke, the state Department of Environmental Conservation cited the company Thursday for several air-quality violations, with potentially steep financial penalties. The DEC last year found the plant was emitting cancer-causing benzene at levels up to 75 times higher than recommended guidelines.

The citations were the latest in a series of get-tough actions by state and federal agencies.

Last month, members of the Clean Air Coalition of WNY and its Pennsylvania counterpart, Keep Erie's Environment Protected, met in Erie to share information and strategy.

"It was an affirmation for our group that it's a long haul, but community organizing works. Both communities are making progress," said Erin Heaney, the Clean Air Coalition's executive director.

"[Their presence] added tremendous weight to everything we've been doing and saying here in Erie," said the Rev. Jerry Priscaro, a priest at St. Ann Catholic Church active with KEEP. "We're dealing with the same owner, and same owners have a similar pattern of behavior."

>Ominous cloud

People still talk about the noxious black cloud of coke oven gas that darkened Erie on March 10.

"It looked like a major storm was coming in, just a large, ominous black cloud rolling in over the city itself, over Hamot hospital, over the whole Bayfront," said James Thompson, City Council president.

The air pollution put an added burden on the Soldiers and Sailors Home, a nursing home for retired veterans.

"Inside the building you could smell it, your eyes would burn, and it was a nauseating smell," said secretary Carolyn Grace.

Coke oven emissions are classified by the Environmental Protection Agency as "a known human carcinogen." The two coke plants owned by Crane, and just two others, in Alabama, produce all of the nation's high-quality foundry coke used to melt metal in industrial processes and for mold preparation.

The slowed economy, however, has reduced the demand for coke. A recent article in American Metal Market, a trade magazine, found foundry production declined from roughly 1 million tons in 2007 to about 600,000 tons in 2009. Crane-owned plants reportedly have been at around 50 percent capacity for more than a year.

Before Thursday's settlement, many Erie residents feared Crane might close Erie Coke rather than give in to regulators' demands, producing pink slips instead of paychecks for its 120 workers. That would have been yet another economic hit to Pennsylvania's fourth-largest city and it's once-robust manufacturing base.

"If that plant was to close, it would be devastating," said Ralph Pontillo, president of the Manufacturer & Business Association. "It would do irreparable harm to jobs and to the tax base. We're talking about a $5 million payroll."

>‘Black, stinky soot'

Luncheonette owner Stephen Paliouras knows many of the Erie Coke workers by their first names.

For the past 40 years, he and his wife, Nina, have operated New York Lunch down the street from the plant, where working-class Germans, Irish, Poles, Greeks and Iraqis rub elbows.

People's health, he said, must come first.

"I'm too [powerless] to say move the plant. I think they should. Look at the smoke every morning. What do you think? A lot of people are sick over that," Paliouras said. "I'm ashamed to take visitors down to the water because of the black, stinky soot."

The dark, discolored water is most prominent near the small boat launch at the foot of East Avenue, known as "The Foot." That's where a discharge pipe from behind Erie Coke's fenced property sends torrents of warm water directly into Lake Erie.

What's being released is believed to be water used to cool off the hot coke after it's baked. But no one in town seems to know for sure. And although swimming is not allowed, no warning signs are posted about potential environmental dangers.

"What is that muck? Can I take my dog over there? Can I take my grandchild over there? Who does the coke plant think they are?" said Leonard Rumberger, on a walk with Cody, his black Labrador retriever.

Kids and teenagers often swim and walk in the water near the discharge, according to Joey Schweichler, 22, because they're less likely to get caught.

"You jump in, step out and the bottom of your feet will be black from the soot and stuff that the pipes put out," said Schweichler, pointing to areas that appeared oily or syrupy. Dead fish, he said, are a regular occurrence.

Schweichler said he never smoked and once enjoyed excellent health, but was diagnosed with asthma at 16 and began having seizures at 19. He wonders if the changes are a result of summers spent swimming in the polluted water.

>‘Our Love Canal'

Monica Sorensen, a former Queen Street resident, also wonders if "the hot creek" and emissions from the plant's smokestack are responsible for the cancers three of her children came down with in their 30s.

Sylvia Walker, Schweichler's grandmother, sees the issue of class behind what she calls "our Love Canal."

"A lot of people who don't have a lot of money and stuff, their kids go down there swimming because that's all they have in the summertime, the only place they can go," Walker said.

Talk to people outside their houses about Erie Coke, and they're likely to swipe a windowsill with a rag to show the ever-present soot. Charley Bootes did so on the 27-foot speedboat he docks at Captain John Lampe Marina.

"It just ruins my boat. I have to buff it five, six times a year," Bootes said, showing off the black powder.

Jim Smith, principal of East High School, also maintains a boat at the marina. But he said what the soot does to his boat is the least of his issues with Erie Coke.

"We try to teach our kids to do what's right and be law-abiding citizens, and then they read in the paper that a plant that is right next to where they go to school, and where they live, is allowed to get away with it just because they're big money," Smith said.

"It's not fair to the kids."

Now that Crane has settled with Pennsylvania regulators, there's growing expectation it will do the same in Western New York.

"I hope that the same agreement with Erie Coke can be reached at Tonawanda Coke," said Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, D-Buffalo. "What's good for the people of Pennsylvania is certainly good for the people of Western New York."

msommer@buffnews.com

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