On Thursday, more than 50 federal and state agents pulled a surprise raid on the Tonawanda Coke plant, with a search warrant to collect evidence for an on-going investigation, according to the Niagara Gazette.
The Environmental Protection Agency has been investigating the facility following air quality tests by the NY Dept. of Environmental Conservation showing levels cancer-causing benzene in the air near the plant 75 times greater than EPA guidelines.
Local residents attribute the toxic air, which also contains hazardous soot particulates, as a cause of respiratory problems and cancers in the area. Several years ago they formed the Clean Air Coaltion of Western NY to draw attention to their plight and to attempt to create a dialogue with plant owner J.D. Crane, who has ignored them. The persistent health problems of residents and a recent protest against the high-level toxic emissions from the Coke Plant drew strong citizen support and attention from the media as well as from the U.S. Senators Schumer and Gilibrand and Representative Slaughter. Those congress members contacted EPA administrator Lisa Jackson to develop a plan to reduce benzene emissions at the coke plant.
According to The Buffalo News, company officials ignored an EPA demand to submit testing protocols for hazardous emissions. The raid included EPA officials from its criminal investigation division, the DEC, the U.S. Coast Guard and state attorney general’s office. “We took records and samples,” U.S. Attorney Kathleen M. Mehltretter said after the raid, declining further comment. The EPA filed suit against Erie Coke on September 22, alleging continuing pollution, poor maintenance of coke ovens and lack of required annual inspections of smoke stacks and boilers. The federal suit stated that Erie Coke could be liable for damages of more than $32,500 a day for violations.
“The community is excited that decisive action is being taken against Tonawanda Coke,” said Erin Heaney, executive director of the Clean Air Coalition. “We’re closer than ever to seeing justice delivered for the residents of Tonawanda.”
The EPA has provided information to the local Tonawanda community on their air quality study and their evaluation of the Tonawanda Coke facility. The EPA communication is here. [PDF]
The recent raid by federal and state officials has also been reported on local TV news from stations WKBW, WGRZ and WIVB.
The plight of the local residents and Tonawanda Coke’s reluctance to talk to them has been highlighted in an Editorial in The Buffalo News.