The Tonawanda Story

The Power of a Few: Citizens Use Science to Stop Illegal Polluter.


From 2006-2007 this small group of impassioned citizens used their data to persuade government officials from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYS DEC) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to fund a year long air quality study. The study validated what the residents had found with their homemade air monitor devises the previous year and confirmed what they suspected all along!  Benzene levels were 75 times higher than the EPA guideline and Tonawanda Coke Corporation, a local foundry coke plant, was the predominant source of emissions.

From 2008-2009 the group continued to move forward by leading a direct campaign to hold Tonawanda Coke responsible for its actions.  They held news conferences, worked with Lois Gibbs (a prominent activist known for her work on the “Love Canal” environmental disaster) and her organization, sent letters to JD Crane (Tonawanda Coke’s owner), and met with many elected officials receiving support along the way.  In the fall of 2009 they hired a young and energetic community organizer to ramp up the pressure by holding a protest at the company gates.

The ongoing media coverage and robust public pressure generated by the community resulted in real change. In December of 2009, together the US Department of Justice, the US EPA, NYS DEC and US Coast Guard raided Tonawanda Coke with a federal search warrant.  The environmental manager, Mark Kamholz, was arrested and taken out in handcuffs!

In 2010 both Tonawanda Coke and Mr. Kamholz were indicted for violating 19 federal environmental laws. In the same year, the EPA issued Tonawanda Coke three Notices of Violation detailing the changes that must be made at the plant to reduce emissions.  As a result of the required plant modifications, benzene emissions at the facility were reduced by 86%. People in Tonawanda and the surrounding Western New York area were now breathing cleaner air!

The story, however, did not end there. A few of the original CACWNY members feared there were still other dangerous contaminants being released into the community from Tonawanda Coke Corporation.  They had learned Tonawanda Coke did not have particulate reducing emission controls in place at the facility. Particulate organic matter (POM), which is very similar to soot from a fireplace, is a dangerous environmental toxin. The group feared Tonawanda Coke had not only polluted their air, but was also contaminating their soil and further interfering with quality of life for those living in the vicinity.

IMG_6808In 2012 they grabbed a shovel and some jars, dug up samples of their soil and sent it to a nearby laboratory for testing. They tested seven yards and found dangerous chemicals in every one!  The class of chemicals present in the samples, called poly cyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), includes many known carcinogens which are associated with foundry coke production and POM. In a subsequent study in 2013, after recruiting the help of local high school students, they sampled and tested several more yards. The same chemicals were discovered throughout.


In the meantime, on March 28th, 2013, after a month long trial in US district court, twelve jurors found Tonawanda Coke and its environmental control manager guilty of 14 criminal charges violating the Clean Air Act and Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. Some of the charges included releasing coke oven gas (containing enormous amounts of benzene and particulate matter) into the air through a pressure relief valve and not reporting the emissions to regulators.This landmark verdict is only the second time in US history that a company has been indicted and convicted under the Clean Air Act.  Precedent has been set for a number of environmental cases to come.In the same year (following the guilty verdict, but before sentencing) the Tonawanda community petitioned the court to keep any fine monies local in order to fund community projects.  Using the data obtained from their soil testing, the group of citizen scientists submitted a project proposal to the judge on the case, Hon. William Skretny.  When the official sentence was finally delivered on March 19, 2014, Tonawanda Coke Corporation was ordered to fund the groups soil study in the amount of $711,000. The remainder of the sentence included an $11 million Health Study also funded by TCC, $12.5 million in company fines, and a 1 year and 1 day prison term for Mark Kamholz.

This was the first time in history a federal Judge ordered community service projects as a term of probation against a company.  Additionally, the sentence included one of the largest fines ever levied in a federally prosecuted environmental case.

Justice was rightfully served.  Today the people of Tonawanda and the greater Western New York area are breathing cleaner air.  It all started with just a few neighbors sitting around a table discussing their individual health struggles and their collective right to a cleaner environment.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” ~ Margaret Mead

Community Based Science for Action Conference