Clearing the Air

Categories:  Features    Environment
Wednesday, March 1st, 2017 at 3:15 PM
Clearing the Air by Katie Chriest
Nick Warren

Say you have a stomachache. You’ve tried over-the-counter stuff, but nothing’s working. You go to your doctor. She asks a few questions about your diet or your current circumstances. She recommends a change or prescribes something – tells you to check back if things don’t improve. Probably no big deal.

Now say you have a good doctor. She remembers that you had comparable complaints a few years ago.

Now say you have a great doctor. Not only does she recall your previous symptoms; she also remembers reading about others who were similarly suffering. Something’s not right, and she knows it. She does some research – not jumping to any conclusions, but also not wanting to dismiss any possibilities.

Wanting, in other words, to connect the dots.

This isn’t really a story about a stomachache. Then again, a medical metaphor is hardly a stretch.

It is, however, a story about connecting the dots. We humans tend to be a little myopic; to be captivated by problems one at a time, and miss how they’re related.

We swallow news snippets – volumes of them – in quick succession. So societal symptoms that ought to have our undivided attention instead get processed piecemeal, like so many stomachaches.

This is a story about Erie Coke Corporation (ECC), at the foot of East Avenue. Except that it’s also a story about Tonawanda Coke Corporation (TCC). The connections outweigh the differences.

Both sites have released more carcinogenic benzene into their surrounding communities than is deemed legal or safe. For years. Both sites have battled with federal and state environmental agencies. For years.

And both communities have struggled to connect the dots.


Their websites are nearly identical, though Tonawanda’s says “Quality through Consistency,” and Erie’s reads “Quality through Consistency and Commitment.” Lucky us.

Both sites commenced coke operations around a century ago. J.D. Crane purchased the Tonawanda plant in 1978, beginning its run as Tonawanda Coke Corp. J.D. Crane purchased the Erie plant in 1987, beginning its run as Erie Coke Corp.

Crane died in 2014. His grandson, Paul A. Saffrin, has taken over.

Then there’s Mark Kamholz. As the Erie Times-News pointed out last October, “Tonawanda Coke was convicted in criminal court in 2013 of 14 environmental crimes, among them the emission of benzene. Its environmental manager, Mark Kamholz, formerly the longtime environmental manager at the Erie plant as well, was convicted of hiding problems from an inspector and sentenced to a year in prison.” [emphasis added]

And, of course, both companies are named for the cities that house them. Former Tonawanda Supervisor Anthony F. Caruana said TCC “has given a ‘black eye’ to the community and caused it to lose potential new businesses,” according to The Buffalo News.

It’s worth noting here that stories of pollution and corporate egregiousness are regularly picked up by the Associated Press, then circulated in multiple out-of-town news outlets. In other words, “Erie Coke Corp.” can become synonymous with “Erie,” giving pause to those who might otherwise consider vacationing, relocating, or setting up shop here.


In 2008, USA TODAY released “The Smokestack Effect: Toxic Air and America’s Schools.” The widely acclaimed, award-winning report singled out Wayne Middle School in Erie as one where benzene levels were especially high.

But a follow-up report released in February of 2009 by the Pennsylvania DEP concluded, “From their single sample, USA TODAY ranked Wayne Middle School as one which may have unacceptable health risks to the student. However sampling by DEP for the stated pollutants of concern (benzene and naphthalene) does not indicate an unacceptable risk to the students attending the school.”

“Acceptable risk” is somewhat encouraging. Unfortunately, this study was performed before Erie Coke’s more recent benzene emissions violations.

Also unfortunately, the school is not the only place where health concerns are well-founded. In June of 2010, Mark Sommer of The Buffalo News visited Queen Street, near Erie Coke.

“Nine,” Sommer wrote. “That’s the number of people who have contracted cancer on Queen Street, a single block of 15 houses located near the Erie Coke plant.

“The tally by longtime residents Steve and Chris Narusewicz includes their 19-year-old daughter, Sara, diagnosed last year with papillary thyroid cancer; Steve’s father, who died from prostate cancer; and a brother who succumbed to colon cancer.

“The high incidence of cancer and other health issues near the coke foundry is one of many similarities between this plant and Tonawanda Coke,” Sommer explained.

Meanwhile, frustrated by unreliable results from outside sources, Tonawanda residents took testing matters into their own hands. [Please see “Tonawanda’s Citizen Scientists”]


On Oct. 14, 2009, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) wrote a letter to J.D. Crane, imploring him to meet with Tonawanda community members, who’d reached out to Crane to no avail.

“Residents of the Town of Tonawanda and the surrounding area are experiencing numerous health problems potentially resulting from toxic benzene and other emissions from Tonawanda Coke,” Schumer wrote. “Serious diseases are occurring at irregularly high rates among Tonawanda residents.”

Then Schumer brought up Erie Coke: “[ECC] is currently being sued by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Pennsylvania DEP. This action was taken after the Pennsylvania DEP found that smoke from the ovens at the Erie Coke plant exceeded federal pollution limits at least 31 times since May 7, 2008. In addition, Erie Coke Corporation was recently fined over $6 million by the Pennsylvania DEP for ‘flagrant disregard’ of environmental laws.”

Anticipating the usual conversation-ending jobs argument, Schumer concluded: “I have long championed manufacturing in western New York and I value Tonawanda Coke’s importance as an employer in the region, but it is clear that to protect public and worker health something must be done and those residents who are affected must be listened to.”

In June of 2010, Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) “requested that the Department of Health and Human Services’ Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) conduct a public health assessment to determine if emissions from the Erie Coke Corp.’s coke-making facility has or will cause harm to the health of people living near the facility,” according to Casey’s blog. “Many Erie residents believe they have suffered a wide range of health problems, ranging from headaches to cancer, due to the plant’s emissions.”

A few months before, on March 10, 2010, the Erie Coke plant had released an enormous noxious cloud (there’s a troubling video on YouTube). Days later, then-Senate candidate Joe Sestak issued a statement commending then-City Council President Jim Thompson for calling for an investigation.

Sestak chastised Sen. Arlen Specter for “vot[ing] to gut the Clear Air Act, allowing such out-of-date plants to continue pumping pollution into the air and even expand operations. … Investment in clean energy creates seven times the number of jobs as investment in fossil fuels, and yet Sen. Specter’s lack of support is a major reason the landmark green jobs bill is bogged down in the Senate while millions of Americans are out of work.”

Coincidentally (or not), J.D. Crane gave campaign contributions twice to Arlen Specter, according to, a nonprofit watchdog database “detailing the connections between powerful people and organizations,” and tallying corporate influence on politicians. Among other donations, Crane also contributed $20,500 between 2004-7 to the National Republican Congressional Committee, “devoted to maintaining and increasing the 232-member Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives.”

This is not to say that Democrats are interested in clean air and Republicans are not. For instance, both the EPA and the Clean Air Act came into being under President Nixon, who also sought to halt dumping polluted dredge waste into the Great Lakes.

Nevertheless, Republican legislators have certainly benefitted from donations of ECC- and TCC-generated money. So we must wonder how that influences their response to corporate violations.


In May of 2010, the DEP “ordered Erie Coke Corp. and company CEO J.D. Crane to cease operations within 72 hours after [the DEP] revoked the facility’s air permit for violating state environmental laws,” according to GANTNews, a CNN affiliate.

DEP’s northwest regional director, Kelly Burch, is quoted by GANTNews: “Since 2006, DEP has inspected Erie Coke’s facility numerous times. Those inspections have revealed a pattern of defiant behavior and complete disregard for the health of our citizens and the quality of our natural resources. Our inspections indicate that the coke ovens at the facility are cracked and emitting pollutants.”

That 2010 DEP order replaced two other orders within the previous two years, both of which were appealed by Erie Coke, and neither of which had yet resulted in full compliance or payment of an assessed “$6.1 million penalty for emissions violations.”

A reprieve was granted through June 18, 2010 by the state Environmental Hearing Board. Shortly before the deadline, ECC signed a consent decree, agreeing to pay $6 million in fines and to bring the plant into compliance with state and federal clean air regulations. Operations never halted.


It’s worth pausing here to define a consent decree, which does quite plainly: “A settlement of a lawsuit or criminal case in which a person or company agrees to take specific actions without admitting fault or guilt for the situation that led to the lawsuit.”

Really, we ought to be quite familiar with consent decrees, since Erie Coke just signed another one a few months ago.

Last September, Erie Coke was sued again by the EPA. As the ETN reported, “The suit claims Erie Coke since November 2010 ‘failed to minimize leaks of benzene’ by failing ‘to identify and seal’ several pieces of equipment. The plant also has ‘continuously failed to identify potential sources of benzene emissions,’ according to the suit. The claims are based on environmental inspections at the plant in November 2010 and March 2015.”

In December, a federal judge approved a new consent decree requiring Erie Coke to pay a $500,000 penalty and improve comprehensive benzene emission monitoring.

Consent decrees require no admission of fault or guilt. Therefore, in some ways, they can be even more outraging to the communities affected by them.

On Oct. 9, 2016, the ETN made the Erie Coke lawsuit the subject of their impassioned “Our View”:

This latest complaint raises questions about enforcement in Erie. Why did it take regulators so long to discover that Erie Coke had not been identifying and reporting potential sources of benzene as far back as 1991?

Erie Coke has a right to due process. The public is also due a more thorough explanation of the information contained in the most recent complaint.

More useful than fines would be health-impact studies like those demanded in response to Tonawanda Coke’s pollution. Erie residents have a right to know if working at or living near Erie Coke has placed their health in danger simply by breathing.

Such a study is taking shape in Tonawanda. Later last October, the ETN reported, “Researchers plan a groundbreaking study that monitors the health of up to 38,000 residents of suburban Buffalo near Tonawanda Coke Corp., which has a similar plant in Erie,” in order “to see if emissions from the coke plant have increased the rates of cancer, heart disease, lung diseases, and kidney diseases in people who live in the Town of Tonawanda, City of Tonawanda, and Grand Island.

“The $11.4 million public health study will be paid for by Tonawanda Coke as part of federal order after the company was convicted in 2013 of violating the Clean Air Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. The company was also fined $12.5 million and placed on five years’ probation.”

ETN then gently reminded Erieites of what should be obvious by now: “The study could be of interest to residents of northwestern Pennsylvania because the same company owns and operates both the Tonawanda Coke plant and the Erie Coke plant at the foot of East Avenue. Both plants have been cited by the Environmental Protection Agency for the emission of benzene, a known carcinogen.”


In January of 2016, the New York State Supreme Court rejected TCC’s appeal in the class action civil case filed by “neighbors of the plant … seeking damages on two fronts: for the loss in property values and for loss of quality of life, both caused by Tonawanda Coke’s ‘negligent release of chemicals into the atmosphere,’” according to The Buffalo News.

Residents near TCC had raised concerns about “cancer, neurological and autoimmune diseases, allergies and respiratory irritation, and asthma and other respiratory disorders,” according to the New York State Department of Health (NYSDOH), which conducted a health outcomes review “based on the public health implications of the [Tonawanda Community] air quality study and requests from community members.” [emphasis added]

In other words, collective complaints from members of the community, particularly those living nearest the TCC site, were integral in catalyzing an examination by the NYSDOH. And the results were remarkable.

“The air quality study showed that the concentrations of benzene and formaldehyde were much higher in the Tonawanda area than in other areas with industrial and urban monitoring data in New York State, excluding New York City. The air quality study results also indicated that the TCC facility was the most important factor in the high air concentrations of benzene.”

Tonawanda Coke Corp. was determined to be the primary cause of carcinogenic benzene in the air that residents were breathing.

But since the community demanded that TCC adhere to emissions standards, and since regulatory agencies and data could no longer be ignored, things have changed dramatically.

A follow-up to the Tonawanda Community Air Quality Study, released after “four years of air monitoring,” reported dramatic “reductions in the ambient concentrations of benzene and other air pollutants within the Tonawanda community,” which “were the result, in part, of operational modifications made by the Tonawanda Coke Corporation (TCC) in response to NYSDEC and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (USEPA) inspections of the facility and subsequent federal and state enforcement actions against TCC.”

A second follow-up was released this past December, after eight years of air monitoring, which showed further reductions in benzene concentration. Improvements were once again attributed in part to TCC operational modifications.


The Trump administration’s decision to control what the American public learns about environmental and agricultural science underscores the need for unprecedented community efforts. During a panel discussion on Jan. 26 hosted by Drexel University’s Academy of Natural Sciences and PennEnvironment, Sen. Casey urged concerned citizens to make our voices heard like never before.

Casey spoke casually, and without political platitudes, as a concerned Pennsylvanian who believes in the word “commonwealth”; a concerned American who believes in democracy; a concerned parent who wants children to have air that’s safe to breathe.

He and fellow panelists also emphasized clean energy’s superior economic and employment potentials. But we’re not going to get there overnight.

Meanwhile, Erie needs jobs. Now. No disputing that. And even in Tonawanda, community organizer Jackie James-Creedon insisted that her group’s intention “was never to shut down Tonawanda Coke, but to work together with them to clean up their operation. We asked them to be good neighbors and they would not even grant us the human courtesy of talking to us.”

The choice between a jobs-providing corporation and clean air is typically painted in black and white by politicians who are owned in part by the companies they defend. But in reality, the choice is more gray, like the noxious cloud many witnessed over Erie Coke in March of 2010. No one should have to see such a sight again.

And certainly, no city should suffer the misdeeds of a corporation found perpetually negligent, which has seemingly decided that the health and vitality of its surrounding community is less important than turning a profit.

It’s time to clear the air, Erie.

Katie Chriest can be contacted at

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