Keeping Polluters Accountable

Authors: Natasha Soto, Class 5 Fellow

Last month residents of the West Side, employees, and members of The Clean Air Coalition joined assemblyman Sean Ryan for a press conference in front of the Peace Bridge asking the state Department of Conservation (DEC) to place an air monitor on Buffalo’s lower West Side.

Press conferences happen every day, so why was this one so important? Because the DEC uses air monitors to measure contaminants in the air continuously, to avoid damage to people and the environment due to air pollution and the people of Western New York desperately need one.

Back in the day, the residents who started The Clean Air Coalition of Western New York conducted their own air testing using a bucket they bought at Home Depot and a hand vacuum. When the results came in, they found that benzene, a known carcinogen, was in their air at increasingly elevated levels. The quickly concluded that there could only be one culprit: Tonawanda Coke Corporation! The residents became angry and demanded the DEC and the Environmental Protection Agency to do something. The DEC put in four air monitoring stations throughout Tonawanda which helped the agency, and the residents determine what other nasty contaminants are in their air, and where it’s coming from. Tonawanda currently has two air monitors because two were taken away back in 2009 At the end of the Tonawanda Community Air Quality Study. Air monitoring has been so important in determining air quality issues in Tonawanda (DEC’s study just determined that there was an 86 percent reduction in benzene.) that we want the DEC to place one on Buffalo’s West Side.

And here’s the kicker! There’s a DEC funded air monitor that measures for VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) as well as fine, and ultra-fine particulates. But it’s on a private golf course in Amherst, where it isn’t even functioning to its full capacity- it’s just measuring temperature and ozone. I mean, if that isn’t bogus, I don’t know what is.

So on a cold February morning, our assemblyman, Sean Ryan, called on the DEC to put an air monitor on the West Side because of all of the diesel exhaust choking that area and he stressed the importance of the two existing air monitors in Tonawanda.

But that’s not what I’m most excited about. For about 15 years the conversation surrounding the Peace Bridge Expansion Project has been about “economic development” or “progress.” People claimed that by not building a “new signature bridge” that Buffalo would be left behind, while other cities, like Detroit and Ontario, would receive an economic boost from trucks and jobs and the like. Now, for the first time in 15 years the conversation has changed to one of air quality issues surrounding the Peace Bridge. To the fact that almost half of all households on the West Side have asthma, or other respiratory issues and, almost four thousand trucks, 80 percent of the United States/ Canada traffic passes through this one neighborhood, over this one bridge, even though there are three other international crossings, and that diesel exhaust contains 40 toxic chemicals, some of which are known to cause cancer.

But this is just a baby step. West Side residents and the Clean Air Coalition of Western New York are just beginning to ask for the neighborhood we need.

Help us by signing our petition to the DEC here:

Natasha Soto — Fellows Class 5

Originally from Washington Heights, Natasha moved to Buffalo for school, where she earned her degree in Environmental Studies. She was instantly culture shocked to find, unlike the melting pot of New York City, a distinct lack of people of color at the University at Buffalo. She fell in love with Buffalo because of the pride and strong sense of community expressed by the people, but she was also aware that something was missing.

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