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Air quality up, risk of cancer dramatically down after Tonawanda Coke closing

The lifetime cancer risk from environmental benzene exposure in neighborhoods around Tonawanda Coke is more than 10 times less now than a decade ago, according to findings by the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

What's more, despite a small uptick in benzene releases this year compared to last year, the levels are 92 percent lower since the century-old River Road plant closed in mid-October.

The DEC's review of air quality data detected "no public health concerns" for short or long-term exposures.

"In response to concerns raised by local residents, DEC assessed neighborhood air quality by analyzing monitoring data and samples," DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos said. "We found that air quality distinctly improved after the shutdown of Tonawanda Coke and that benzene, a toxic air pollutant, dropped precipitously."

The data of 15-minute and 24-hour averages at the DEC's Grand Island Boulevard air monitoring station near Tonawanda Coke found a dramatic decrease in the amount of benzene in the air since the plant's Oct. 14-21 shutdown period. All of the readings were less than 1 part per billion and nearly all of them were less than 0.5 parts per billion. Data before the shutdown revealed 15-minute average levels at or above 5 parts per billion four times between Aug. 13 and Sept. 28.

Benzene concentrations at Grand Island Boulevard decreased substantially since the plant's closing in mid-October. (DEC)

Jackie James-Creedon, founder of Citizen Science Community Resources, called the DEC data good news for the community. James-Creedon helped launch some of the earliest community campaigns against Tonawanda Coke in the early 2000s.

Early efforts like hers led to the installation of air monitors around the site and community engagement. And that prompted a federal investigation and a criminal prosecution for environmental crimes related to benzene releases from the company.

"If you look at the larger perspective, where we came from to where we are now, it's amazing," James-Creedon said.

"Regardless of the exact numbers, we are a lot safer, and we are breathing a lot cleaner air," she said.

"We're encouraged the benzene levels have decreased," said Rebecca Newberry, executive director of the Clean Air Coalition of Western New York, "and we're looking forward to working with our coalition partners toward a site that's cleaned up in the long-term."

The EPA's maximum permissible level of benzene – a known carcinogen – in drinking water is 5 parts per billion, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. CDC estimates are that lifetime exposure to 0.4 parts per billion of benzene in air results in one additional cancer case for every 100,000 people exposed to it.

"Overall, the potential cancer risk estimate from benzene exposure continues to decrease in the community," according to the DEC.

The DEC data shows that in 2008, benzene levels posed a 75 in 1 million lifetime cancer risk at the Grand Island Boulevard location. By last year, that risk had dropped to 7 in 1 million.

"This estimated cancer risk is considered low by federal and state public health and environmental protection agencies," the DEC reported. "DEC expects the annual cancer risk estimate from benzene exposure to decrease further since Tonawanda Coke has shut down."

Experts paint bleak picture of what Tonawanda Coke left behind

DEC data shows benzene concentrations at more than 10 parts per billion on at least four occasions along Grand Island Boulevard in 2007 and 2008.

The agency found that average benzene concentrations increased slightly this year over last year at the Grand Island Boulevard monitor, from 0.28 parts per billion to 0.36 parts per billion through Nov. 10.

At its Brookside Terrace monitor – in the closest residential neighborhood to Tonawanda Coke – the average benzene concentrations stayed steady at about 0.16 parts per billion.

"The current analysis shows there was an 89 percent reduction in benzene concentrations since the end of the (initial Tonawanda Community Air Quality) study in July 2008," the DEC said.

It added: "The DEC expects the benzene concentrations will continue to decrease at the Tonawanda area monitors resulting from the closure of Tonawanda Coke."

The agency said current concentrations are now similar to those "typical of similar, suburban locations."

Seggos, after a recent visit to the Tonawanda Coke site, said the post-closure controls effort is continuing. He expects the DEC and EPA to maintain a constant presence on the site "for the foreseeable future."

"The most immediate dangers from that site have likely been abated," Seggos said. "The significant air concerns that we had earlier in the year have largely been abated. There didn't appear to be a significant amount of run-off from the site, if any. The site itself presents significant hazards, so it's dangerous place to walk around."

You asked, we answered: Who pays to clean up Tonawanda Coke?

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