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Soil contamination studies near Tonawanda Coke explained at public forum

For years residents tried to warn officials that Tonawanda Coke's manufacturing process was making them ill.

Following a criminal conviction, a federal judge ordered the company to release $5.5 million to study how the company's pollution poisoned the surrounding community.

Dr. Joseph Gardella, UB chemistry professor, addresses audience gathered at Town of Tonawanda.

On Thursday public research officials and members of the Citizens Science Community Resources, a Town of Tonawanda grassroots community group, held a public forum in Kenmore to explain how the study will be conducted. About 40 residents came to listen and ask questions.

Some like Rose Kirst of Kenmore wanted to know if there would be research into cancers in the area. Her husband Ted died in 2012 of leukemia. She said he used to run around the plant.

"I also want to know if there are any chemicals in the soil around me," said Kirst.

Others like James Alonzo, a retired employee of Tonawanda Coke, said he has seen firsthand how his co-workers were affected by cancers and related illnesses that he believes were caused by toxins at the plant. At age 69 he said he is still healthy, but added, "Most people I know are dead."

Anna Adams-Smutzer lives near the Tonawanda Coke plant. She said one day in 2009, during a widely publicized leak, she was outside shoveling and soon after she got sick and lost her voice for six months. Since that time she has been plagued by illnesses, including a mass in her lung, a thyroid tumor and a mass in her neck.

Other community meetings in neighboring communities of Grand Island and the City of Tonawanda have also been held to encourage residents to be part of a soil sampling  study, which will examine how emissions have impacted the surrounding environment.

Town of Tonawanda Supervisor Joseph H. Emminger addressed those gathered and said with a grimace that his town was ground zero.

"We are obviously the most-impacted community because it is located here," he said of Tonawanda Coke. "We are not (as a Town Board) against Tonawanda Coke, as long as they follow the laws, but when they impact the health of our community that's when we say enough is enough."

Jackie James-Creedon founded Citizen Science Community Resources.

Jackie James-Creedon, who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia in 2003, said she and her neighbor Adele Henderson, another community member, began doing their own research in 2005 and fought for soil and health studies. At that time they and their neighbors were armed with no more than a retrofitted bucket and a bag to collect air samples around the Tonawanda Coke plant on River Road.

Creedon, who founded Citizen Science Community Resources, won their grassroots battle in March 2013 when a federal judge found the Tonawanda Coke Corp. guilty of 14 criminal charges related to toxic emissions and the handling of hazardous waste. The company was ordered to fund an $11.4 million Tonawanda health study to see how these poisons affected neighbors. The initial funding for the research was released in September 2016 after the company lost a federal appeal.

U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny also released $711,161 for a separate soil study, which will begin in April.

Citizen Science Community Resources is looking for residents to volunteer to be part of the soil study, as well as residents to join them as citizen scientists to collect samples.

There were some concerns that negative results from these soil samples could affect home values.

"It is what it is," said Creedon. "If we have to push for a clean up we will have the science to back us up."

Public health officials from the University at Buffalo and State University of New York at Fredonia will have unprecedented access. Joseph A. Gardella Jr., a UB chemistry professor, is leading the effort and is joined by Michael Milligan, professor of chemistry at Fredonia.

Milligan, who grew up in Tonawanda and graduated from Kenmore East, said he felt privileged to be part of the study.

"This problem, associated with air pollution in this part of the town, has been well-known for 15 years," said Milligan. "There are a lot of (factories) in the area, but we are hoping to be able to trace it. There are some unique chemical markers in the coke process."

Gardella said they will conduct 200 to 300 soil samples in the towns of Tonawanda and Grand Island this year to create a map. The following year, after mapping out hot spots, they will collect more samples. Gardella said they will test for 138 different chemicals in the soil.

In addition to testing the soil, researchers will track the health of 38,000 Tonawanda and Grand Island residents, as well as current and former Tonawanda Coke employees over the next 5 to 10 years. The goal will be to determine whether workers exposed to coke oven gas are more likely to die from diseases related to its use.

The funding will also create an environmental health education center to help residents learn more about the study and serve as a resource for people seeking information on health and disease prevention issues.

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