“Poisoned Places”: Tonawanda one of many proofs that regulation cannot protect us

 

Our neighbors in Tonawanda, on the Niagara River in western New York State just south of Buffalo, were being poisoned for decades by a company that, unlike the gas/oil industry, does not enjoy exemptions from clean water, clean air, toxic waste laws and other regulations set in place to protect our environment and health.

For many years regulatory agencies DEC (NYS) and EPA (federal) ignored residents’ complaints of foul air and physical ailments, outrageously high rates of cancer and other diseases, and benzene levels 500 TIMES HIGHER than what is considered the highest acceptable level in state guidelines. Not only benzene, but other highly toxic chemicals were being released over decades into the air and water by a company called Tonawanda Coke Corporation. (No doubt others of the 50 or so industrial polluters that have PERMITS in Tonawanda contributed even more.)
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From the piece:
Joe Martens, commissioner of New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation, defended the record of his agency, which eventually set up high-tech air quality monitors that documented extremely elevated benzene levels, leading to the  enforcement actions. But he said such sophisticated equipment had not been available previously. So state officials had no way of knowing about the benzene, formaldehyde, and other toxic emissions seeping from leaks in equipment and piping at the plant, Martens said. “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.
After reading this, what kind of idiot would say, “Hey, sure the DEC and DEP and EPA will protect us from being poisoned by industry”? Ask the people of Tonawanda, many of whom have become very sick and some of whom have died because of the toxins dumped on them by this single iron-smelting factory.
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Yet we are to trust that the DEC and other flaccid regulatory agencies will protect us from Big Gas and related industries and their fracking and related machines? No way, Jose! We must tell the DEC and the governor that no amount of regulation is acceptable. DEC (and DEP and other states’ agencies) regulations are not acceptable. Only a full and total ban on industrial poisoning from fracking and other industries is acceptable. 
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Read the great investigative piece on Tonawanda citizens who fought back against the polluting company, which was FINALLY CHARGED IN CRIMINAL COURT because poisoning us and our communities IS A CRIME and thus should be in the criminal code. Every one of the corporate officers and senior staff should serve serious jail time and pay heavy financial damages to those they poisoned. Not that any amount of money could restore the poisoned people’s lives or adequately compensate for their losses.

This piece is part of a fine, scary, and eye-opening new series by the Center for Public Integrity in concert with Slate and NPR, called “Poisoned Places.”
As often happens during in-depth investigations — an unexpected discovery. Reporters learned that the EPA maintains a “watch list” that includes serious or chronic Clean Air Act violators that have not been subject to timely enforcement. Two versions of the internal list, never previously made public, were obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. (More about the watch list here.)

Congratulations to the investigators, researchers, writers, editors, publishers, and funder of these important pieces. May they awaken people to the dangers we face and help them force change to protect and sustain the places we live, the air we breathe, and the lives we hope to continue leading.

- Maura Stephens, independent writer, associate director of the Park Center for Independent Media, and a cofounder of Coalition to Protect New York

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