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Twenty-one years ago, Congress strengthened the Clean Air Act. Overall, the nation's air is cleaner. But a joint investigation by NPR and the Center for Public Integrity finds many communities are still at risk from toxic chemicals produced by industry.

For our series Poisoned Places, NPR's Elizabeth Shogren reports from Tonawanda, New York. There, regulators failed for years to identify a serial polluter. That is, until locals forced them to crack down.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN, BYLINE: Jeani Thomson wakes up many mornings to a thick haze. We're sitting in her backyard and she shows me a picture she took four years ago from her doorway.

JEANI THOMSOM: And I opened up the door and it was just like a blue fog.

SHOGREN: It's something Thomson says she's lived with for 35 years in her low-income neighborhood of Tonawanda.

THOMSOM: It burns your eyes. It burns your throat and it's just bad.

SHOGREN: Her voice has that raspy smoker's sound, but she never had a cigarette. Her eyes are bloodshot.

THOMSOM: I have eye issues where I have to have antibiotic eye drops. I have had three different cancers. I have one lung, half a stomach.

SHOGREN: Thomson is slim with long black hair. She's only 57, but she lurches back and forth on stiff legs as she moves towards her house.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR)

SHOGREN: Inside, she empties a plastic shopping bag on her couch. Out fall the 22 prescriptions she takes.

(SOUNDBITE OF PILLS)

THOMSOM: Like this one, four times a day. This one is two times a day.

SHOGREN: Several years ago, Thomson joined a small group of local people worried about industrial pollution in Tonawanda. Most had something in common - unexplained illnesses. They talked about the rare cancers, the leukemias.

JACKIE JAMES-CREEDON: The skin rashes, the eye problems, the burning noses, the burning mouths...

SHOGREN: Jackie James-Creedon started the group. They call themselves the Clean Air Coalition of Western New York.

JAMES-CREEDON: And we were questioning: Why are people so sick in this area?

SHOGREN: A state health department study had shown elevated rates of some cancers, including thyroid, lung and brain cancers, in parts of Tonawanda. But the study didn't explain what could be causing the increase.

JAMES-CREEDON: We thought that possibly it could be the air that we've been breathing in for the last 30 years.

SHOGREN: There weren't any government air quality monitors in the area. But James-Creedon found out that other communities were testing their own air with buckets.

She shows me the place where she took the first bucket sample seven years ago.

JAMES-CREEDON: And we built this for about $100 using parts from the hardware store. It's literally a Home Depot bucket.

SHOGREN: One bucket sample came back from the lab showing benzene levels that were off the chart. Benzene is a known carcinogen. It's linked to blood disorders, leukemia and reproductive problems. The group shared the results with state regulators and the media.

JAMES-CREEDON: Once we exposed the truth, the ball started rolling.

SHOGREN: But it didn't roll very fast. A state official started attending the group's monthly meetings. Members remember him hinting that the likely source of benzene was Tonawanda Coke, a sprawling plant that bakes coal in super hot outdoor ovens. Coal is essential for casting iron and making steel.

But the official told them there wasn't much the state could do because the plant was passing its inspections and complying with its air pollution permit. The group decided it needed reinforcements to push the state into action.

James-Creedon says members went door-to-door in the neighborhoods closest to Tonawanda Coke, urging people to make official complaints about the awful odors, the huge plumes of soot and the symptoms they were suffering.

JAMES-CREEDON: People are complacent and just thought that this was normal way of life - breathing this in.

SHOGREN: Still, three years passed before the state put its own air quality monitors in place near the plant. A year later, now four years after the first bucket test, the state released some results from its air monitors.

The data was startling. Benzene levels were so high the state calculated that they dramatically increased the risk of cancer in the area.

JENNIFER RATAJCZAK: It was horrific.

SHOGREN: Jennifer Ratajczak wondered if it had triggered her leukemia.

RATAJCZAK: Could it be harming my husband, who is working currently in the industrial area? What about my two children?

SHOGREN: But the state still did not name Tonawanda Coke or any other plant as the source of all that benzene.

In the summer of 2008, the odors and air pollution were especially bad and people were complaining in news reports about headaches, breathing problems and other symptoms. Those reports got the attention of a former plant manager.

Ron Snyder decided it was time to blow the whistle. He took his concerns about the plant and its owner, J.D. Crane, to the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

RON SNYDER: The plant is absolutely falling down, pipes leaking all over the ground.

SHOGREN: Snyder decided to go public for the first time in response to NPR's joint investigation with the Center for Public Integrity.

SNYDER: And he doesn't care a rat's ass about anybody who lives a mile downwind.

SHOGREN: Snyder described how the plant's dilapidated and outdated equipment and leaky pipes sent lots of toxic gases straight into the air. A pressure valve that was supposed to go off only in emergencies instead pumped exhaust full of benzene into the air every 20 minutes.

SNYDER: And that's been spewing into the atmosphere for 25 or 30 years.

SHOGREN: Except when regulators from the Department of Environmental Conservation arrived for scheduled inspections.

SNYDER: And the DEC and the EPA would apparently just walk right past it. Because any time we had visitors in the plant, you'd change the regulator so it wouldn't bleed off.

SHOGREN: Snyder left Tonawanda Coke six years ago, after working there for 25 years. He says managers felt pressured to lie about the plant's pollution. For example, they did not tell regulators when they had power outages that shut down the plant's exhaust system and sent lots of toxic gases into the air.

SNYDER: Because that's supposed to be documented in a quarterly report to the EPA, that I used to have to sign and we would have power failures and wouldn't report them.

SHOGREN: For decades, the plant's self-reported pollution estimates did not show high levels of benzene. Snyder says regulators should have questioned this. He says regulators also missed lots of other obvious violations, like the fact that the plant did not even have giant filters called baffles. They're required by its permit to prevent toxic particles from gushing out of the plant in massive plumes of steam.

Tonawanda Coke's owner, J.D. Crane, refused NPR's repeated requests for interviews. His lawyer, Rick Kennedy, denies the allegations and says the company is cooperating with regulators in good faith.

After Snyder made his revelations to regulators, he didn't hear from them for a long time. Snyder started talking to a few leaders of the Clean Air Coalition. He secretly gave them information about dirty operations and equipment failures that he got from inside the plant.

SNYDER: And actually, I still maintain a relationship with a couple guys there.

SHOGREN: The group used this information to push the state to act. Finally, in April of 2009, experts from the state and the federal EPA swooped in on Tonawanda Coke for a weeklong surprise inspection.

According to government reports, they found lots of benzene seeping from equipment in disrepair. Holes in equipment and piping were patched with cloth strips, metal bands and even wooden plugs. A few months later, officials finally admitted that the state's air quality study had determined that most of the very high levels of benzene came from Tonawanda Coke.

So why did it take years before regulators discovered Tonawanda Coke's many violations?

JOE MARTENS: It's really not appropriate to talk about specific details.

SHOGREN: Joe Martens is the commissioner of the New York Department of Environmental Conservation.

Why was this plant allowed to pollute for so long?

MARTENS: Hazardous air pollutants are difficult to detect. We didn't have the equipment originally to do the type of detection, you know, police work, that EPA was able to do.

SHOGREN: Last year, the EPA ordered the company to pay for high-tech testing. It revealed the company had been dramatically under-reporting its pollution. The company had been reporting annual benzene emissions of three to five tons. But the high-tech test showed they were nearly 91 tons.

EPA's regional administrator Judith Enck intensified the crackdown on Tonawanda Coke after she took her job two years ago. She admits inspections should have discovered at least some of Tonawanda Coke's many violations sooner. Then she makes a surprisingly candid admission.

JUDITH ENCK: If this was in, you know, an affluent city where thousands of people lived, I think there would have been more of a laser-like focus on this earlier.

SHOGREN: Tonawanda Coke and its environmental manager face a criminal indictment, accusing them of violating pollution laws and obstructing justice. And this summer, the company agreed to an EPA order to cut its benzene emissions by two-thirds.

But that's not good enough for some of Tonawanda's pollution fighters.

On this warm August evening, the bucket brigade is out again. They're following their noses and the wind.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Right here's perfect.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Just got a huge whiff when I came out.

SHOGREN: They think the regulators are still letting the plant pollute too much.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: So should we do it?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Yeah. Actually, I think I'm going to cap it now. Yeah.

SHOGREN: They're determined to keep up the pressure on the plant and the regulators.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Does everybody smell Tonawanda Coke now?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Oh, yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Oh, yeah.

SHOGREN: Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News.

RAZ: Our story was produced by Sandra Bartlett. To see a video with the people of Tonawanda, go to NPR.org.

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