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3-year monitoring of air shows big drop in carcinogens

Benzene concentrations have been reduced by 86 and 68 percent at respective industrial and residential site monitors in the Town of Tonawanda, according to a three-year study of air quality presented Wednesday evening by the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

The levels of four other chemicals -- three of them considered carcinogenic -- also has decreased dramatically.

"We've made some progress here -- we've made some important progress here and we're seeing it in the measurements," Tom Gentile, who heads the Air Toxics Section for the DEC office in Albany, told the packed auditorium in the town Senior Citizen Center.

According to Gentile's presentation, the levels of four carcinogens -- benzene, formaldehyde, acetaldehyde and butadiene -- were all down significantly in both locations. The level of a noncancer compound, acrolein, considered to be a respiratory irritant, also showed dramatic improvement.

Two monitoring stations were used for the three-year air quality study. One, dubbed the "industrial monitor" at Grand Island Boulevard, and another, called the "residential monitor," at Brookside Terrace.

Erin J. Heaney, director of the Clean Air Coalition of Western New York, the grass-roots organization that took the initial air samples that prompted the DEC study, was pleased with the findings.

"I think we got some really good news tonight," Heaney said. "An 86 percent reduction [in benzene] is something to celebrate."

Heaney acknowledged that "a lot of work" still needs to be done.

Gentile said the dramatic progress of the last three years in Tonawanda is not unprecedented. He cited the Kodak plant in Rochester as a similar success story. Gentile attributes quick and dramatic reductions in air chemicals to the monitoring sites.

That might be why local attorney Charles H. Cobb expressed concern over disbanding a monitor. "We have seen decreases -- it is fantastic, but it's not by mistake," he said. "My fear is once you shut down one of the monitors, the eye is gone."

Residents complained that the concentration of pollutants remains at unacceptable levels for the 300 or so of them who live in the industrial neighborhood near Sawyer Avenue. One woman pleaded with local representatives to help residents there relocate from the neighborhood.

She posed a point-blank question to Gentile: "Would you live there?" the woman asked.

"Would I live there?," Gentile responded. "No, probably not."