DIGITAL EXCLUSIVE- Cleaning Up Coke: The Human Factor

Digital Exclusive

After the sudden closing of Erie Coke, much has been said and written about the condition of the lakefront site. For many involved in that conversation, it’s less about the land and more about the people who lived near the plant and the people who worked there.

In the shadow of the closed Tonawanda Coke plant, Maria Tisby worries about what’s next and the way she believes her political leaders have acted.

“I live here. This is my backyard and all I’m saying is clean it up and it’s looked upon as an intrusion. Like, how dare you question what we’re doing here with your land and I think that’s just not right.”

Tisby is a member of the Clean Air Coalition of Western New York, a group that pushed regulators to keep a close eye on Tonawanda Coke before it closed. The CAC wanted this to be a federal superfund site. But, New York State has opted to oversee the clean-up.

So, how far did contamination from Tonawanda Coke spread? A court-ordered study of the surrounding area is almost finished. That study stretching across the Niagara River.

“I can’t tell you how many families with young children said ‘Can you please take a sample? I’m concerned about my kid playing in the yard’ and I was able to tell them ‘You know what, we didn’t see anything from the area around you.'” said Dr. Joe Gardella of the University of Buffalo.

“We want to make sure everyone is watching what’s happening at that site.’ said Sr. Pat Lupo.

Lupo is with HECA, or Hold Erie Coke Accountable. While they figure out the impact on the land, that group also wants a human health impact study.

“We’re not talking about cancer rates, although that is surely one of the things we’re talking about. But, all the respiratory ailments that go along with that.” Lupo said.

Nellie Brown of Cornell University was employed at the Tonawanda Coke site for three years. She too is concerned about the human toll inside and outside those plants. Knowing the watchdogs likely have a long term project on their hands.

“It’s one thing to look at what the site is gonna do, but it’s another thing to look at the people who worked there and the people who have lived around the plant, what they may have to experience in the future.” Brown said.

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