In March of 2014, a federal jury found Tonawanda Coke plant in New York guilty of polluting the air and soil with high levels of benzene from its coke oven, serving the company with a $24 million verdict.
A year later, as part of the company’s federal court sentencing, an $11 million, 10-year study was launched to quantify the coke plant’s impact to the public health. The health of 38,000 Tonawanda and Grand Island residents – one third of the population – which includes current and former plant employees, will be monitored.
“The immediate long-term effects of this contamination are not easily discovered or quantified,” Chief U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny said, “but what is apparent, what is palpable, is that this community has suffered in the form of unexplained medical conditions, unwanted property contamination and unknown future effects.”
The plant has since made $8 million in operation improvements. The company, as part of its penalties, has paid $1 million for environmental and health projects within the town as well as $357,000 toward restoration or preservation of a wetlands area.
According to recent air quality tests, the improvements seem to be working. Over the last eight years, the levels of pollutants continue to fall. An air quality study by the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) ended officially in 2008, but the agency continues to monitor the air quality on both Grand Island Boulevard and in the Brookside Terrace neighborhood.
The air quality monitoring showed a whopping 92 percent reduction in benzene from levels in 2008 at the Grand Island Boulevard site, and a 74 percent reduction in benzene at the Brookside Terrace site.
“Overall, since we’ve done the initial study there’s been a big improvement in air quality in the Tonawanda area,” said chief of DEC’s Air Toxics Section, Thomas Gentile.
According to Gentile, the cancer risk factor in Grand Island went from 75 in 1 million residents to six in 1 million. In Brookside Terrace, the cancer risk factor went from 15 in 1 million to four in 1 million.
“Hearing that benzene and other hazardous air pollutants in our community have been reduced by nearly 92 percent came as a relief for our community tonight,” said Jackie James-Creedon, a member of Citizen Science Community Resources. “We are breathing cleaner air in our community today because average citizens took action and worked. The DEC should be commended for their supportive work in accomplishing this goal.”
Occupational exposure is a high risk factor in the development of benzene-related illnesses and injuries such as Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML), Myelodysplastic Syndrome (MDS), lymphomas and Aplastic Anemia.
Source: Buffalo News