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.