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March 19, 2013

Western New York Families Mobilize Against Polluters

Tonawanda 1

In Tonawanda, kids are getting sick, the community is deteriorating, and all signs point to polluters that have been getting away with it for a long time.

Tonawanda is home to one of New York's last remaining coal-fired power plants, NRG Huntley, and to 53 industrial facilities. Within its borders are two petroleum distribution terminals, multiple chemical bulk storage terminals, a tire manufacturing plant, and two interstate highways.

That's why more than 150 people gathered to discuss the community's ongoing health problems caused by toxic pollution that has gone unchecked for decades. The event was the culmination of a year-long organizing effort by a Sierra Club partner organization, the Clean Air Coalition of WNY. A $100,000 Community Action Grant from the Environmental Protection Agency made CAC's impressive work possible.

Tonawanda 2

"This was the result of a years of hard work by our membership," said Rebecca Newberry, CAC community organizer.

"Since the program began we've engaged with more than 1,300 people on the doors, in focus groups, photography projects, and educational programs to capture the reality of life in Tonawanda," she said. "During this meeting, residents were able to learn the results of all the data we've collected and vote on the top five worst risks to their health, which will direct our work moving forward."

The community meeting took place a week after the state Department of Health released a study confirming what locals here already knew: The people of Tonawanda have higher rates of cancer compared with the rest of the state. The study found several cases of esophageal cancer among men and uterine cancer in women.

Tonawanda 3

"There are just too many rare forms of cancer in this area, starting very young. That's just not heard of," Cindy Mannino, president of the Anthony V. Mannino Foundation, told local news outlet WIVB

The grassroots campaign drew the attention of Los Angeles-based band Nico Vega, which took an "environmental tour" organized by the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign. The popular band visited Tonawanda to see firsthand three of the area's dirtiest industrial plants and recorded an acoustic version of their song "Protest."

"The part of town we were in next to the factories didn't seem fit for residential living," said the band's vocalist Aja Volkman. "We want to protect people from being forced to sacrifice their quality of life for income. It's not right that the people living in these homes and working these jobs are disease-ridden. Not to mention the harm it's doing to our beautiful planet."

"The Clean Air Coalition's incredible work and unparalleled community relationships are helping residents connect the dots between industrial contamination, their health, and declining neighborhood conditions," said Jennifer Tuttle, a Sierra Club Beyond Coal organizer. "Good paying jobs are not easy to find in the Buffalo area, so some are reluctant to take on these industrial plants," continued Tuttle. "But across Western New York, community members are demanding a clean energy economy that will not only be built to last but will also support a healthy community."

-- Brian Foley

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