By Jessica Bagley
The Tonawanda News
Tonawanda News — BUFFALO — The Clean Air Coalition of Western New York continued their crusade against Tonawanda Coke Tuesday afternoon at a rally in downtown Buffalo.
The organization stood outside the state Department of Environmental Conservation office at 270 Michigan Ave., Buffalo, to protest the agency’s extension of Tonawanda Coke’s operating permit that has been in place since 2007.
“The operating permit sets how much air pollution they can emit and the testing they do,” Program Coordinator Rebecca Newberry said.
In accordance with the Clean Air Act, all large industrial facilities in New York state are obligated to renew the Title V permits every five years through a process that includes public participation; the agency accepts letters from residents and will also hold a public hearing if requested.
“The DEC issues the permits and should go through a renewal process,” Newberry said. “They review things, especially if the factory has any problems with the residents living around there.”
But the DEC extended the contract in 2007 without a review or public input.
And environmental activists argue too much has happened in the past five years for the factory to keep running under the current document.
Despite the EPA issuing Tonawanda Coke three notices of violation for breaking federal laws in 2010, the factory has put in place new emission controls that seem to be reducing the levels of harmful chemicals in the area.
A report from the DEC in the fall of 2011 shows that the neighborhood’s prevalence of benzene, a harmful chemical known to cause cancer, dropped 86 percent since 2010.
“Those changes need to be included in the permit,” Newberry said. “They give the agencies muscle to enforce the controls.”
A few dozen activists attended Tuesday’s rally, armed with signs and shouting chants of “we will always be watching.”
Two coalition members spoke at the event, including Ronald Malec, who is on the organization’s technical team and helps review factories’ permits.
“I met a lot of people that are sick, and I can also smell it occasionally at my house,” he said. “We need to protect these people.”
Malec brought a photograph from the coalition’s exhibit that depicts the factory through a wire fence that surrounds the property.
“The wire fence does not protect the community from the factory,” the photo’s caption states.
Newberry also spoke at the rally and spoke to the many people she’s encountered who are sick as a result of the area’s pollution.
As part of her position at Clean Air, she goes to door-to-door to talk with residents.
She said she’s heard about residents who see plumes of smoke and have to shut their windows to keep the smell out — and parents who are worried about their kids growing up in that environment.
And Newberry said she can relate to residents’ worries.
“Two months ago, my mother was diagnosed with a very rare form of brain cancer. Nothing could have possibly prepared me for how it would affect our family,” she said. “It’s not fair. And it’s not fair that a corporation could come time to treat a community irresponsibly, and causing similar diseases. That’s why we are here today.”Contact reporter Jessica Bagley at 693-1000, ext. 4150.