Jeani Thomson has been pleading with New York state officials for more than 30 years to protect her neighborhood from the foul-smelling "blue fog" that settles in her yard. She has long suspected the source is an industrial facility about a mile from her house called Tonawanda Coke.
She blames pollution from that plant for transforming her from a fit mail carrier who walked a 13-mile route to a survivor of multiple cancers who now takes 22 medications. She has only one lung and half a stomach. Her voice has that raspy smokers sound although she has never had a cigarette. She is only 57, but she lurches back and forth on stiff legs.
On bad days, she needs oxygen to breathe.
"It's not anything that I ate. It's not anything that I drank. I'm not an alcoholic. I exercise. I'm not overweight," says Thomson. "It's from living here and breathing the air."
It's difficult to definitively link any one person's illness to air pollution from a particular plant. But the concerns about the health effects of Tonawanda Coke's toxic pollution rallied a small group of people in Tonawanda — most of them sick — to force complacent regulators to clean up their air.
Sick Residents Form Coalition
Jackie James-Creedon, who has fibromyalgia, started the Clean Air Coalition. At first, she says, it was just several people — many with breathing problems, rashes, unexplained infertility and all kinds of cancers. Now, the group has 200 official members, according to the coalition's director, Erin Heaney.
There weren't any air pollution monitors in the area, but James-Creedon learned that other communities were testing their own air with buckets.
She used 5-gallon buckets from Home Depot, baggies and a hand-held vacuum to test their community's air. She found shockingly high levels of benzene, which, with chronic exposure, is linked to blood disorders like leukemia, and infertility.
With a hint from a state regulator, the feisty group determined that the main menace was a plant called Tonawanda Coke Corp., a dilapidated relic of the industrial age that since 1917 has turned coal into material needed for casting iron and making steel.
The group enlisted a plant insider to help expose Tonawanda Coke's dirty practices. It recruited residents who lived closest to the plant to report to the state and the media when plumes of soot and odors became intolerable.
It took five years of tireless prodding before state regulators officially blamed Tonawanda Coke for high levels of benzene and started to aggressively enforce the Clean Air Act.
In 2009, the state, together with the Environmental Protection Agency, swooped down on Tonawanda Coke for a weeklong surprise inspection. Inspectors found the plant in such a state of disrepair that huge amounts of benzene and other dangerous chemicals were seeping from cracks in worn-out equipment and leaky pipes in the open-air facility.
In a cascade of civil and criminal enforcement actions starting that year, the EPA has accused the plant of vastly underestimating its toxic emissions, operating illegal equipment that pumped untreated toxic gas into the air, and failing to use pollution controls required by its permit that would have prevented hazardous particles from getting into the air.
The company and its environmental manager are charged with violating pollution laws and obstructing justice in a pending criminal indictment.
Executives with Tonawanda Coke declined to be interviewed for this story because of pending legal action. The company's lawyer, Rick Kennedy, vigorously denied the allegations and said that because of the pending legal cases, the company cannot "tell its side of the story."
"[D]espite the pendency of these cases and the serious nature of our disagreements, TCC has worked cooperatively and in good faith with those agencies on a wide range of practical projects," Kennedy said in an email.
A Problematic Regulatory System
The case highlights the risks posed to communities around the country by an environmental regulatory system that largely entrusts companies to voluntarily disclose how much toxic pollution they emit and that can take years to act once violations are discovered.
For many years, regulators didn't challenge Tonawanda Coke's vastly underreported emissions of benzene, formaldehyde and other chemicals known to be harmful to health.
Even after the government forced the company to fix blatant sources of benzene, sophisticated measuring equipment found benzene seeping out of the plant at a rate of 91 tons per year, according to an EPA analysis. That was almost 30 times higher than what it had reported to the EPA through the Toxics Release Inventory in 2009.
The state eventually came through for the community by setting up high-tech air-quality monitors that documented the extremely elevated benzene levels and then eventually, five years after the Clean Air Coalition's bucket tests, pinned them on the plant.
Joe Martens, commissioner of New York's Department of Environmental Conservation, defends his agency's record. Stressing that hazardous air pollutants are not visible, he says inspectors lacked the sophisticated equipment needed to detect the toxic emissions seeping from leaks in equipment and piping at the Tonawanda Coke plant.
"Hazardous air pollutants are difficult to detect. We didn't have the equipment to do the type of detection, you know, police work, that EPA was able to do" later, says Martens.
But Judith A. Enck, the EPA's administrator for the region that includes New York — and a former top environmental official in the state — concedes that some of the violations should have been caught earlier.
"If this was in an affluent city where thousands of people lived, I think there would have been more of a laserlike focus on this earlier," Enck says.
She offers a larger lesson from the experience in Tonawanda: Communities get cleaner air when they dig in their heels and demand it.
Coalition Helps Residents Seek Answers
In 2006, doctors diagnosed Jennifer Ratajczak with leukemia. They explained that her disease was not genetic, and asked whether she had worked with benzene. She never had, but the question stuck in her mind.
Then, two years later, in March 2008, she and her husband, Glenn, attended a community meeting. State officials announced that benzene levels in the air were high enough to dramatically increase the risk of cancer.
"It was horrific," recalls Jennifer. "I needed answers. Is it what triggered my disease? Could it be harming my husband, who is working in the industrial area? What about my two children?"
Not long after, they went to their first of many coalition meetings. "After we left, I sat in the car and burst into tears," she recalls. "Something deep in my heart knew there was a huge problem going on in my hometown, and my conscience would not allow me to turn away."
A Whistle-Blower Emerges
In the summer of 2008, pollution from Tonawanda Coke seemed especially bad. People living near the plant complained about its black smoke and its burned-rubber smell. They stopped opening their windows at night or barbecuing in their backyards. They kept their children away from home as much as possible. They suffered even more sore throats, headaches and breathing problems.
Listening to the local television news, Ron Snyder heard the residents' health complaints and decided to blow the whistle on his former boss. He had worked as a manager at Tonawanda Coke for 25 years but had left the plant in 2005, when the owner wanted to demote him from his post as plant supervisor.
Snyder outlined a long list of practices at Tonawanda Coke that sent noxious emissions into the air. For instance, it made a dirtier type of coke at night so people wouldn't see the big "black mushroom clouds" it created, he asserts.
He says he expected a hero's welcome from regulators but didn't get it. He also expected them to reach out for more information, but he says he didn't hear from anyone for more than a year.
So he chose to sleuth for the Clean Air Coalition. He asked the group to conceal his identity because he feared he could face prosecution for his own actions as a plant manager. He decided to go public for the first time in response to questions for this report from NPR and the Center for Public Integrity.
"He was our 'Deep Throat,' " recalls Adele Henderson, an art professor who was one of the first members of the group. "I always thought it was Ron Snyder's testimony that triggered the raid on Tonawanda Coke because he knew so much and saw so many bad things happening and so many violations. Otherwise, it's a place on the hill behind fences — there's no way of knowing what goes on there."
In 2009, Snyder started hearing from state and federal investigators. He told them that the plant didn't have basic pollution control devices called baffles, which are required by the state to prevent toxic particles from gushing into the air. And to prove it, he showed them images from Google Earth.
He recalls telling them that every 20 to 30 minutes the plant released untreated gas from the ovens into the atmosphere through a valve that was only supposed to go off in emergencies.
"That's been spewing into the atmosphere for 25 or 30 years," Snyder says. "The [New York Department of Environmental Conservation] and the EPA would, apparently, just walk right past it."
When inspectors were expected at the plant, Snyder says, workers would change the settings so the valve wouldn't go off.
Many of Snyder's revelations were substantiated in April 2009 during a surprise inspection by regulators. They found many violations of clean air, clean water, and toxic waste laws. They documented how the plant had missing baffles, and they caught a worker trying to change the settings on the pressure release valve so it wouldn't go off.
Inspectors questioned the worker, who told them he was following the environmental manager's direction.
A 20-count federal indictment, still pending, charges the company and its environmental manager, Mark Kamholz, with violating the Clean Air Act by not having baffles and by illegally operating the pressure release valve. It also charges them with obstructing justice for trying to hide their illegal use of that valve.
Kamholz's lawyer, Rodney Personius, says he believes the government's "very aggressive position" against the company and Kamholz shows that regulators were "getting a tremendous amount of pressure from the community."
Personius predicts that the case will go to trial because the company has "meritorious defenses."
"This is not a case where we're sitting back helpless," Personius says, but he refused to provide detail about his defense. Court documents don't provide any hints, either.
Lessons Learned From Tonawanda
EPA officials say the Tonawanda case has exposed a weakness in the way the EPA regulates toxic air pollution. The agency has long allowed companies to estimate emissions, but increasingly the EPA is demanding that companies adopt more sophisticated monitoring equipment.
The Tonawanda Coke example "reveals the monitoring and reporting systems that have been in place for many years may not be telling us everything we need to know to identify and reduce toxic air pollution," says Cynthia Giles, the assistant EPA administrator who heads the agency's enforcements.
This summer, the company agreed to an EPA order to cut its benzene by two-thirds. That doesn't satisfy many of Tonawanda's pollution fighters. They're determined to keep pushing regulators to require the plant to slash emissions even further.
Last month, the state announced that its air monitor downwind from Tonawanda Coke showed benzene concentrations 86 percent lower than it had during 2007. That progress, they say, comes from fixing and replacing equipment and leaks at Tonawanda Coke and from reduced production.
"It is not enough for my community," says James-Creedon. "The safe level for benzene is zero."
James-Creedon has launched a new attack on the plant. She's orchestrating a class-action lawsuit, seeking compensation for medical expenses for a couple hundred people who blame their illnesses on the plant.
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GUY RAZ, HOST:
And I'm Guy Raz.
Twenty-one years ago, Congress strengthened the Clean Air Act. Overall, the nation's air is cleaner. But a joint investigation by NPR and the Center for Public Integrity finds many communities are still at risk from toxic chemicals produced by industry.
For our series Poisoned Places, NPR's Elizabeth Shogren reports from Tonawanda, New York. There, regulators failed for years to identify a serial polluter. That is, until locals forced them to crack down.
ELIZABETH SHOGREN, BYLINE: Jeani Thomson wakes up many mornings to a thick haze. We're sitting in her backyard and she shows me a picture she took four years ago from her doorway.
JEANI THOMSOM: And I opened up the door and it was just like a blue fog.
SHOGREN: It's something Thomson says she's lived with for 35 years in her low-income neighborhood of Tonawanda.
THOMSOM: It burns your eyes. It burns your throat and it's just bad.
SHOGREN: Her voice has that raspy smoker's sound, but she never had a cigarette. Her eyes are bloodshot.
THOMSOM: I have eye issues where I have to have antibiotic eye drops. I have had three different cancers. I have one lung, half a stomach.
SHOGREN: Thomson is slim with long black hair. She's only 57, but she lurches back and forth on stiff legs as she moves towards her house.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR)
SHOGREN: Inside, she empties a plastic shopping bag on her couch. Out fall the 22 prescriptions she takes.
(SOUNDBITE OF PILLS)
THOMSOM: Like this one, four times a day. This one is two times a day.
SHOGREN: Several years ago, Thomson joined a small group of local people worried about industrial pollution in Tonawanda. Most had something in common - unexplained illnesses. They talked about the rare cancers, the leukemias.
JACKIE JAMES-CREEDON: The skin rashes, the eye problems, the burning noses, the burning mouths...
SHOGREN: Jackie James-Creedon started the group. They call themselves the Clean Air Coalition of Western New York.
JAMES-CREEDON: And we were questioning: Why are people so sick in this area?
SHOGREN: A state health department study had shown elevated rates of some cancers, including thyroid, lung and brain cancers, in parts of Tonawanda. But the study didn't explain what could be causing the increase.
JAMES-CREEDON: We thought that possibly it could be the air that we've been breathing in for the last 30 years.
SHOGREN: There weren't any government air quality monitors in the area. But James-Creedon found out that other communities were testing their own air with buckets.
She shows me the place where she took the first bucket sample seven years ago.
JAMES-CREEDON: And we built this for about $100 using parts from the hardware store. It's literally a Home Depot bucket.
SHOGREN: One bucket sample came back from the lab showing benzene levels that were off the chart. Benzene is a known carcinogen. It's linked to blood disorders, leukemia and reproductive problems. The group shared the results with state regulators and the media.
JAMES-CREEDON: Once we exposed the truth, the ball started rolling.
SHOGREN: But it didn't roll very fast. A state official started attending the group's monthly meetings. Members remember him hinting that the likely source of benzene was Tonawanda Coke, a sprawling plant that bakes coal in super hot outdoor ovens. Coal is essential for casting iron and making steel.
But the official told them there wasn't much the state could do because the plant was passing its inspections and complying with its air pollution permit. The group decided it needed reinforcements to push the state into action.
James-Creedon says members went door-to-door in the neighborhoods closest to Tonawanda Coke, urging people to make official complaints about the awful odors, the huge plumes of soot and the symptoms they were suffering.
JAMES-CREEDON: People are complacent and just thought that this was normal way of life - breathing this in.
SHOGREN: Still, three years passed before the state put its own air quality monitors in place near the plant. A year later, now four years after the first bucket test, the state released some results from its air monitors.
The data was startling. Benzene levels were so high the state calculated that they dramatically increased the risk of cancer in the area.
JENNIFER RATAJCZAK: It was horrific.
SHOGREN: Jennifer Ratajczak wondered if it had triggered her leukemia.
RATAJCZAK: Could it be harming my husband, who is working currently in the industrial area? What about my two children?
SHOGREN: But the state still did not name Tonawanda Coke or any other plant as the source of all that benzene.
In the summer of 2008, the odors and air pollution were especially bad and people were complaining in news reports about headaches, breathing problems and other symptoms. Those reports got the attention of a former plant manager.
Ron Snyder decided it was time to blow the whistle. He took his concerns about the plant and its owner, J.D. Crane, to the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
RON SNYDER: The plant is absolutely falling down, pipes leaking all over the ground.
SHOGREN: Snyder decided to go public for the first time in response to NPR's joint investigation with the Center for Public Integrity.
SNYDER: And he doesn't care a rat's ass about anybody who lives a mile downwind.
SHOGREN: Snyder described how the plant's dilapidated and outdated equipment and leaky pipes sent lots of toxic gases straight into the air. A pressure valve that was supposed to go off only in emergencies instead pumped exhaust full of benzene into the air every 20 minutes.
SNYDER: And that's been spewing into the atmosphere for 25 or 30 years.
SHOGREN: Except when regulators from the Department of Environmental Conservation arrived for scheduled inspections.
SNYDER: And the DEC and the EPA would apparently just walk right past it. Because any time we had visitors in the plant, you'd change the regulator so it wouldn't bleed off.
SHOGREN: Snyder left Tonawanda Coke six years ago, after working there for 25 years. He says managers felt pressured to lie about the plant's pollution. For example, they did not tell regulators when they had power outages that shut down the plant's exhaust system and sent lots of toxic gases into the air.
SNYDER: Because that's supposed to be documented in a quarterly report to the EPA, that I used to have to sign and we would have power failures and wouldn't report them.
SHOGREN: For decades, the plant's self-reported pollution estimates did not show high levels of benzene. Snyder says regulators should have questioned this. He says regulators also missed lots of other obvious violations, like the fact that the plant did not even have giant filters called baffles. They're required by its permit to prevent toxic particles from gushing out of the plant in massive plumes of steam.
Tonawanda Coke's owner, J.D. Crane, refused NPR's repeated requests for interviews. His lawyer, Rick Kennedy, denies the allegations and says the company is cooperating with regulators in good faith.
After Snyder made his revelations to regulators, he didn't hear from them for a long time. Snyder started talking to a few leaders of the Clean Air Coalition. He secretly gave them information about dirty operations and equipment failures that he got from inside the plant.
SNYDER: And actually, I still maintain a relationship with a couple guys there.
SHOGREN: The group used this information to push the state to act. Finally, in April of 2009, experts from the state and the federal EPA swooped in on Tonawanda Coke for a weeklong surprise inspection.
According to government reports, they found lots of benzene seeping from equipment in disrepair. Holes in equipment and piping were patched with cloth strips, metal bands and even wooden plugs. A few months later, officials finally admitted that the state's air quality study had determined that most of the very high levels of benzene came from Tonawanda Coke.
So why did it take years before regulators discovered Tonawanda Coke's many violations?
JOE MARTENS: It's really not appropriate to talk about specific details.
SHOGREN: Joe Martens is the commissioner of the New York Department of Environmental Conservation.
Why was this plant allowed to pollute for so long?
MARTENS: Hazardous air pollutants are difficult to detect. We didn't have the equipment originally to do the type of detection, you know, police work, that EPA was able to do.
SHOGREN: Last year, the EPA ordered the company to pay for high-tech testing. It revealed the company had been dramatically under-reporting its pollution. The company had been reporting annual benzene emissions of three to five tons. But the high-tech test showed they were nearly 91 tons.
EPA's regional administrator Judith Enck intensified the crackdown on Tonawanda Coke after she took her job two years ago. She admits inspections should have discovered at least some of Tonawanda Coke's many violations sooner. Then she makes a surprisingly candid admission.
JUDITH ENCK: If this was in, you know, an affluent city where thousands of people lived, I think there would have been more of a laser-like focus on this earlier.
SHOGREN: Tonawanda Coke and its environmental manager face a criminal indictment, accusing them of violating pollution laws and obstructing justice. And this summer, the company agreed to an EPA order to cut its benzene emissions by two-thirds.
But that's not good enough for some of Tonawanda's pollution fighters.
On this warm August evening, the bucket brigade is out again. They're following their noses and the wind.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Right here's perfect.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Just got a huge whiff when I came out.
SHOGREN: They think the regulators are still letting the plant pollute too much.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: So should we do it?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yeah.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Yeah. Actually, I think I'm going to cap it now. Yeah.
SHOGREN: They're determined to keep up the pressure on the plant and the regulators.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Does everybody smell Tonawanda Coke now?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Oh, yeah.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Oh, yeah.
SHOGREN: Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News.
RAZ: Our story was produced by Sandra Bartlett. To see a video with the people of Tonawanda, go to NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.