Environmental Justice is Served

By Erin Heaney

Every community has the right to know what they are being exposed to. That’s why at the Clean Air Coalition (CAC), our mission is to develop grassroots leaders who organize their communities to run and win environmental justice and public health campaigns.  We’ve seen over the years that when leaders and residents have good data, they are better able to become strong advocates for their neighborhoods.


One example of this is our recent work to protect residents of Tonawanda, New York from dangerous air pollution. After CAC-led citizen science showed high levels of benzene in Tonawanda, New York originating from a foundry coke plant operated by Tonawanda Coke, residents mobilized to hold the plant accountable. They knocked on their neighbors’ doors, met with decision makers, and earned dozens of press hits. The public pressure generated by CAC members resulted in historic enforcement action against the plant.

In December of 2009, the US Department of Justice, the US EPA, NYS DEC and US Coast Guard executed a federal search warrant at Tonawanda Coke. Less than a week later the company’s environmental control manager was arrested.  On March 28th, 2013 a jury found Tonawanda Coke and the environmental contral manager guilty of violating the Clean Air Act, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, and the environmental control manager was also found guilty of obstructing justice. The company faces criminal fines in excess of $200 million and the company’s control manager faces up to 75 years in jail.

Now, we are working to ensure that the community has a voice in providing the court with project proposals from the community that may be funded in their community through a court ordered penalty. The Clean Air Coalition used a participatory budgeting process to identify potential projects for the court’s consideration Check out this short film on how the process worked!


The Tonawanda Coke case is an amazing example of how citizen science, access to environmental data, combined with community mobilization and strong support from the federal government can result in tangible results for communities on the margins.

But it all starts with community awareness. One tool we used to build this awareness among residents in the fight against Tonawanda Coke was the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI). The TRI online database was developed by EPA to give communities more information about what’s released by large industry in their backyards.  I originally wrote about our first TRI training for residents in the region last year. Now, we have learned a lot and we want to share the lessons we learned with other communities. We’ve turned them into a training guide  that people like you can use to educate and train your communities.

The guide is divided into two sections. The first hour explores the movement and history that advocated for TRI and the rules that govern the program. The second half gives folks hands-on practice using the database and exploring the releases in their neighborhood.

We hope other communities throughout the country will use our guide to share information with impacted residents, educate policy makers and continue to build a movement for the environment. Enjoy!

About the author: Erin Heaney is the Executive Director of the Clean Air Coalition of Western New York, a grassroots organization that develops community leadership to win campaigns that advance public health and environmental justice. She has trained hundreds of grassroots leaders and won campaigns that have resulted in significant emissions reductions from some of the region’s largest polluters.


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