Lockport Union-Sun & Journal Online

February 17, 2014

DEC proposal to reduce air monitoring devices raising worries with local group

By Michael Regan michael.regan@lockportjournal.com
Lockport Union-Sun & Journal

Lockport Union-Sun & Journal — TONAWANDA — A proposal by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation that would potentially reduce the number of air monitors in the state has raised a red flag with a local environmental group, the Clean Air Coalition, which is credited with uncovering egregious air quality violations at the Tonawanda Coke plant on River Road. 

The statement, released last week by DEC Commissioner Joe Martens, indicated that a recent proposal tendered by the state government’s top environmental watchdog would consider the removal of some of New York’s roughly 80 monitors in cases where there are also onsite industrial monitors. 

“While these environmental monitoring services are an important management tool to ensure the protection of public health and the environment, environmental monitors do not replace DEC staff,” Martens said. “They are used where circumstances warrant an added level of oversight.”

But Erin Heaney, executive director of the Clean Air Coalition, said it was the installation of four air monitors in 2007 near the Tonawanda Coke plant that helped uncover the release of high benzene levels and other toxins into the surrounding area, even as DEC employees conducted direct oversight of the plant for more than two decades. 

The plant’s former environmental manager faces a lengthy prison sentence and the plant owner J.D. Crane may have to pay up to $200 million in fines when he’s sentenced next month in federal court for widespread violations of the Clean Air Act. 

Two air monitors remain near the Grand Island Bridge as well as the Brookside Terrace neighborhood in Tonawanda, while 52 industrial sites in a 2-square mile area continue to emit dangerously high levels of toxins into the air, Heaney said. 

Heaney, who had not yet seen the report when interviewed, said while the statement released by Martens doesn’t specifically mention a reductions in air monitors in the Buffalo area, including one near the Peace Bridge and another in the vicinity of the Galleria Mall, it does appear to clash with public interest. 

“My first reaction is that we look forward to reading the reports in great detail and seeing if their plans make sense for the community we work with,” she said. “It does appear that it will be working to limit monitoring and that’s exactly what our community doesn’t want. It seems counterintuitive. Air monitoring has a really important role in making the community and works safe.” 

Requests for interviews with DEC officials on Friday were not immediately answered, but Martens’ statement said air monitoring policies have not been updated since 1992, and the focus of any potential policy change would give his outfit more leeway in determining criteria for the use of air monitors.