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Editorial: Citizen-activists worked with agencies to force upgrades at Tonawanda Coke

The marked air quality improvement in the Tonawandas over the last eight years is a huge win for residents who fought vigorously on this issue.

As recently reported in The News, the state Department of Environmental Conservation operates two air quality monitors, on Grand Island Boulevard in the town and in the Brookside Terrace neighborhood in the city. It reports periodically on its findings.

The focus has been on benzene emissions. Monitoring showed a 92 percent reduction from 2008 levels at the Grand Island Boulevard location, and a 74 percent reduction in benzene at the Brookside Terrace site.

The concern dates back to the early 2000s when residents reported health issues. Their civic activism on the critical issue of clean air developed into what is now known as the Clean Air Coalition. Members understood that industrial pollution in the neighborhood contributed to their illnesses. The DEC’s Tonawanda Air Quality Study, which ended in mid-2008, was the result of a year of organizing, with residents collecting samples that showed high rates of benzene, a known carcinogen.

One emitter of benzene was Tonawanda Coke Corp., information that sparked a major investigation into the plant.

Both monitoring sites are downwind of Tonawanda Coke, which had been emitting high levels of benzene from its coke oven. The benzene reductions were the result of operational modifications made by the company following DEC and federal Environmental Protection Agency inspections of the plant and the agencies enforcement actions.

The plant installed flares to manage the coke oven gas, repaired leaks, improved leak detection and repair programs, and eliminated ammonia emissions.

The work by environmental officials following up on the efforts of resident activists is little short of astounding. The air in the Tonawandas is safer for their invaluable dedication.

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