Clean Air Coalition of Western New York hold Tonawanda Coke accountable for air pollution, 2005-2009


To compel regulators to hold Tonawanda Coke Corporation accountable for decades of illegal pollution and to force plant officials to improve their operation protocols.


United States

Location City/State/Province

Tonadanda, New York

Location Description

Greater Buffalo, New York area
Jump to case narrative

Methods in 1st segment

  • wrote letters to New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to share self-collected air quality data
  • "Citizen Science": When regulators informed residents that area air quality was acceptable, Tonawanda residents collected their own air samples and conducted their own quality testing

Methods in 2nd segment

  • wrote letters to New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to share self-collected air quality data
  • "Citizen Science": When regulators informed residents that area air quality was acceptable, Tonawanda residents collected their own air samples and conducted their own quality testing

Methods in 3rd segment

  • wrote letters to New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to share self-collected air quality data

Methods in 4th segment

  • organized community meetings regarding air quality results

Methods in 5th segment

  • Former Tonawanda Coke employee blew whistle on illegal practices in letter to regulators
  • community meetings regarding pollution data and organizing in opposition to Tonawanda Coke

Methods in 6th segment

  • speeches outside of Tonawanda Coke plant
  • CACWNY stated their intent to canvas locally, meet with Tonawanda Coke officials
  • Rally outside of Tonawanda Coke plant
  • when J.D. Crane refused invitations to attend public town-hall style meetings, kept empty chair onstage

Additional methods (Timing Unknown)

Segment Length

10 Months


Clean Air Coalition of Western New York


Not known.

External allies

Lois Gibbs

Involvement of social elites

Senator Charles Schumer, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Representative Louise Slaughter, Erie County Legislator Michele Iannello, Assemblyman Sam Hoyt


Tonawanda Coke Corporation and its owner, J.D. Crane

Nonviolent responses of opponent

Not known

Campaigner violence

Not known

Repressive Violence



Human Rights



Group characterization

industrial workers

Groups in 1st Segment

Clean Air Coalition of Western New York

Groups in 5th Segment

Lois Gibbs

Groups in 6th Segment

Erin Heaney
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand
Representative Louise Slaughter
Erie County Legislator Michele Iannello
Assemblyman Sam Hoyt
Senator Charles Schumer

Segment Length

10 Months

Success in achieving specific demands/goals

6 out of 6 points


1 out of 1 points


3 out of 3 points

Total points

10 out of 10 points

Notes on outcomes

Coalition expanded from 5 members to 200

Database Narrative

By the start of the 21st century, there were 53
active industrial plants in the area around Tonawanda, New York. Residents of
the area had complained about air quality problems for decades, but regulators
failed to intervene to ensure plants complied with federal law. Many people
living in the area reported severe and chronic health problems, such as
fibromyalgia, asthma, and cancers—including lung cancers in non-smokers.


In 2005, community members discussing their health problems
wondered whether air pollution from local industry could be causing their
sicknesses. A group of concerned residents, including Jackie James-Creedon,
used homemade bucket set-ups to monitor local air quality. They discovered
elevated concentrations of benzene and formaldehyde—two industrial by-products
known to cause cancer—and took action based on their findings. They founded the
Clean Air Coalition of Western New York, and contacted the New York State
Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) to share their data.


The DEC was slow to commission a government-funded
scientific study of the conditions in Tonawanda. Monitoring for the Tonawanda
Community Air Quality Study finally began in July 2007 and concluded one year
later in July of 2008. The results of this government study were reported to
local residents through three informational sessions with representatives of
the DEC, the first of which was held in March 2008.


In the summer of 2008, Rob Snyder (an ex-employer of
Tonawanda Coke Corporation) made an anonymous report to the DEC and the federal
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) about conditions he had observed at his
former job in the coal processing plant. Reporting anonymously out of a fear of
legal repercussions, Snyder outlined a number of illegal and unethical activities
he had seen and participated in at the plant, including the plant’s habit of
performing dirtier processing at night when people would be unable to see the
resulting black smoke.

In November 2008, DEC representatives held a second
informational session to present the data from the yearlong air quality study.
A few days later, on 21 November, members of Clean Air Coalition of Western New
York held a news conference to announce their desire to discuss the findings
and invited Tonawanda Coke officials to a town-hall style meeting with


On 6 January 2009, the Tonawanda Common Council adopted a
resolution to urge local industry to cut their benzene emissions. Though this
resolution was only a non-binding request for companies to abide by federal
law, the council specifically singled out Tonawanda Coke.


Early in 2009, the DEC and EPA responded to Rob Snyder’s
reports of illegal operational procedures at the Tonawanda Coke plant. They considered
the lack of proper safety controls, the improper use of designated
emergency-only vents to release massive quantities of benzene into the
atmosphere and the absence of basic filtering and safety equipment.


On 20 February 2009, the Clean Air Coalition of Western New
York held a news conference and community meeting with Lois Gibbs, the
executive director of the Center for Health, Environment, and Justice and a
prominent activist known for her work on the “Love Canal” environmental
disaster. Gibbs advised the group on how to proceed with their activism against
the Tonawanda Coke Corporation. At the news conference, Jackie James-Creedon
emphasized the group’s desire to speak with Tonawanda Coke Corporation’s owner,
J.D. Crane.  James-Creedon also
announced that the Clean Air Coalition of Western New York would be launching a
door-to-door canvassing effort in April to raise awareness of the crisis and to
urge action by legislators and regulators at both the state and federal level.


Public regulators made a surprise visit to the Tonawanda
Coke Corporation plant in April 2009 and documented many violations of the
federal Clean Air Act. On 19 May, the Coalition held a town hall meeting for
residents to discuss Tonawanda Coke’s role in local air pollution.  Around 36 local residents attended, but
J.D. Crane did not. This was the third meeting invitation he had refused. The
Coalition kept his empty chair onstage to highlight his absence.


The next month, the Coalition hired Erin Heaney as its
executive director. Heaney, experienced in human rights organizing and activism,
helped ramp up the group’s direct action campaign.


Representatives from the DEC held a third information
session on 12 June 2009, which 200 people attended—the largest attendance yet.
Speakers reported that local levels of benzene were 75 times higher than the
legal limit in the state of New York and singled out the Tonawanda Coke plant
as responsible.


On 22 June 2009, United States Senator Charles E. Schumer
sent a letter to Tonawanda Coke Corporation owner J.D. Crane, citing the
results of the air quality study and urging him to make changes immediately to
comply with federal law. Crane responded two months later, calling the
Coalition’s complaints as “a bun with no burger.” Crane dismissed the
atmospheric benzene concentrations as the result of automobile traffic and
denied the need for a benzene control plan or for any alteration in plant
operating procedure.


Harnessing public outrage about Crane’s letter and refusal
to meet, 75 members of the Clean Air Coalition of Western New York held a rally
near the Tonawanda Coke plant on 7 October 2009. Jackie James-Creedon asserted
that since Crane had refused the group’s invitations, they were bringing the
meeting to him. The rally included picketing and a “bucket brigade” of
residents holding up the buckets they had used to conduct air sampling since
2005. The Buffalo News featured the
rally on its front page on 11 October. According to later court testimony by federal
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officials, this news coverage was
instrumental in piquing the interest of regulators and mobilizing a full-scale


On 14 October 2009, Senator Schuman sent a second letter to
J.D. Crane, demanding that he meet in person with members of the local
community immediately regarding the local air quality. Crane did not meet with
residents.  Senator Kirsten
Gillibrand and Representative Louise Slaughter joined Senator Charles Schumer
in urging EPA administrator Lisa Jackson to take action against Tonawanda Coke.


At a press conference on 17 October, Erie County Legislator
Michele Iannello, Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, and local residents demanded that
regulators hold the corporation accountable and revealed that recent further
testing had confirmed that the high levels of benzene pollution were not attributable
to automobile testing, as J.D. Crane had argued.


On 30 October, J.D. Crane published an op-ed piece in The Buffalo News, claiming that the
newspaper’s accounts constituted irresponsible and inflammatory reporting and that
Tonawanda Coke Corporation was in full compliance with all federal
regulations.  He maintained that
motor vehicles were the primary cause of the high local concentrations of
benzene, in spite of the recent release of evidence to
the contrary. That same day, the New York regional director of the EPA’s
division of enforcement and compliance wrote to Tonawanda Coke, noting 26
elements of the plant’s protocols that did not match mandatory government’s
standards. The letter requested that the company respond with outlines for new
testing protocols within 30 days. The company did not meet this deadline and
objected to the accusation.

On 18 December, federal EPA agents raided the Tonawanda Coke
facility, demanding to see the company officials who had failed to respond
adequately to the EPA’s 30 October letter. The agents seized company records
and collected samples within the plant and the surrounding area.


Tonawanda Coke ultimately faced 19 charges of violating the
federal Clean Air Act. The illegal release of benzene was prominent among these
charges, as were violations of laws regarding the handling, disposal, and
documentation of toxic waste. Charges were also leveled against Mark Kamholz,
who had overseen environmental compliance and policy at the plant and who was
found guilty of obstruction of justice and Clean Air Act violations. Following
a month-long trial, the company was found guilty of 14 of the 19 charges.


The Clean Air Coalition of Western New York continues to be
active through soil testing and educating other communities about how to employ
the “bucket brigade” testing strategy.


Bagley, Jessica. “Clean Air Coalition Takes a Victory Lap.” Tonawanda News. 19 April 2013.

Beebe, Michael. “Coke plant officials targeted in EPA raid accused of not submitting plan for testing protocols.” Buffalo News. 19 December 2009.

Ciemcioch, Mark. “Benzene Emissions a Concern.” Buffalo News. 7 January 2009.

Clean Air Coalition of Western New York. “Our History.” Clean Air Coalition of Western New York. Accessed Feb 5 2014. < >

Crane, J.D. “Op-Ed: Allegations Against Company Cannot Be Supported.” Buffalo News. 30 October 2009.

Esmonde, Donn. “’People Power’ Beat Tonawanda Coke.” Buffalo News. 31 March 2013.

Habuda, Janice. “Group seeks meeting on benzene.” Buffalo News. 22 November 2008.

Habuda, Janice. “Gibbs rallies residents fighting air pollution in Tonawanda Area.” Buffalo News 21 February 2009.

Habuda, Janice. “Residents Berate Coke Plant Owner.” Buffalo News. 20 May 2009.

James-Creedon, Jackie. “From ‘Buckets’ to ‘Dirt’: Cleaning up Tonawanda Through Citizen Science.” 19 May 2013. Accessed 8 February 2014. <>

McNeil, Harold. “Tonawanda Coke Plant at Fault for Foul Air, DEC Study Concludes.” Buffalo News. 13 June 2009.

Peters, Danielle. “Get to know: Clean Air Coalition of Western New York.” Green Renaissance of Western New York. 27 Januar 2011. Accessed 6 February 2014. <>

Schumer, Charles. “Press Release: Schumer urges Tonawanda Coke plant CEP to take stronger actions to reduce benzene emissions that are threatening the health and safety of town residents.” 22 June 2009.

Schumer, Charles. “Press Release: Schumer demands Tonawanda Coke plant CEO meet with community members to discuss concrete actions to reduce benzene and other toxic emissions.” 14 October 2009.

Shogren, Elizabeth, Bartlett, Sandra, and Lombardi, Kristen. “N.Y. Plant’s Neighbors Expose Regulatory Gaps.” National Public Radio. 10 November 2011.

Sommer, Mark. “Protesters demand Tonawanda Coke Cut Emissions; DEC Study found dangerously high levels of benzene.” Buffalo News. 8 October 2009.

Sommer, Mark. “Danger in the Air; State study finds Tonawanda Coke emits benzene up to 75 times higher than recommended guidelines, stirring calls for action.” Buffalo News. 11 October 2009.

Staff, Buffalo News. “Lawmakers ask probe of coke plant.” Buffalo News. 18 October 2009.

Staff, WGRZ. “Tonawanda Coke Found Guilty of Violating Clean Air Act.” WGRZ. 29 March 2013. Accessed 9 February 2014. <>

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy

Mar Firke, 09/02/2014