Lois Gibbs became a symbol for grassroots environmental activism in the fight again toxic waste at Love Canal in Niagara Falls in the late 1970s. But there are others who have continued the grassroots fight. Women like Jackie James-Creedon of Kenmore. She is literally digging up dirt and grass to look for toxins.
It all started years ago, when residents just north of Buffalo smelled something odd in the air. They worried that it might be harmful, but they didn’t know where it was coming from.
“We would literally go out at night and hunt for the smell,” said Creedon. “On August of 2004 there was a bad smell and we took an air sample and that’s what started the whole Tonawanda Coke campaign.”
Jackie James-Creedon is the director of the Citizen Science Community Resource Center. She suffers from chronic pain due to fibromyalgia. She went from patient to environmental activist when she realized that she was not the only one suffering.
She and some neighbors called themselves the bucket brigade. They learned how to take air samples with a home depot bucket, a scientific air bag, and a mini vacuum.
University of Buffalo Chemistry Professor Joseph Gardella Jr. worked with the coalition to have those air samples analyzed. The results showed a high level of dangerous benzene that interested the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
“Even though it was a three minute air sample it raised the eyebrows at the staff at the DEC,” said Gardella. “They really went above and beyond the call of duty looking at all of this stuff.”
That led to an investigation of Tonawanda Coke, a plant that turned coal into a more efficient fuel. A criminal trial found the company had violated air pollution laws. It was fined more than 12 million dollars.
Now, that money is helping to fund two separate health studies in the area. About $700,000 is being used for soil sampling.
Gardella is the principal investigator in the study and is partnering with Citizen Science Resources and SUNY Fredonia. He said they sampled soil at over 200 sites to create a map of hot spots in the area.
They want to identify contaminants from Tonawanda Coke, other industries, automobile pollution, and what health risks they may pose.
“We’re at the end of that right now,” said Gardella. “We’re working with government presently to tie down the last details of that so we can present a map of areas with elevated pollution. In phase 2 we will collect highly focused samples in those areas.”
James-Creedon said part of the citizen science mission is teaching people how to take action.
“If you spend any time with children,” said James-Creedon, “they are very inquisitive. Our idea is that we have to get society back to that state again. We need people asking questions and asking why and getting out there and testing. That’s what we do. We give folks the tools to go out and test their own environment and use that data for action.”
Donna Pedlow owns a Grand Island farm with her husband John. She said she would consider testing soil on land where they raise chicken and grow vegetables.
“The soil that you plant your produce in… that will affect your fruits and vegetables. If you want to sell it, you want it to be healthy and not contaminated.”
Money from the Tonawanda Coke fine also is funding a 10-year-environmental study led by Matthew Bonner, a University at Buffalo professor. Over $11 million has been set aside for that study.
This month they will begin to enroll participants from the Tonawanda area and Grand Island, as well as those who have worked at the plant. The study will track their health over the next decade.
Gardella said he’s not surprised at the community interest. He connects it to the work Gibbs did at Love Canal.
“I think it has to do with Lois Gibbs. My view is that it has to do with her legacy. Community members, like Jackie, can look at Gibbs and see themselves and I think that’s inspiring. She’s inspired activists across the country,” said Gardella.