A metal parts fabricator in Wyoming County, a Cheektowaga firm that makes equipment for mining and drilling, a tire chemical factory in Niagara Falls and a Batavia manufacturing plant are among the facilities in Western New York that pose the greatest potential public health risk due to the toxic pollution they spew.
Steel & O’Brien Manufacturing in Arcade in Wyoming County had the federal government’s highest “risk screening score” in the region for toxic waste producing facilities, followed by Derrick Corp. in Cheektowaga, Goodyear Tire & Rubber in Niagara Falls, Graham Corp. in Batavia and Western New York Energy in Medina in Orleans County, according to a Buffalo News analysis of Environmental Protection Agency data.
The EPA annually determines a “Risk-Screening Environmental Indicators” score for facilities tracked through its Toxic Release Inventory program. The score considers not only the amount of toxic chemicals emitted by a facility, but also the toxicity of those chemicals and the size of the population that potentially could inhale or otherwise come in contact with them.
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The scores are based upon air, water and ground emissions data companies are required to report to the EPA.
Steel & O’Brien makes sanitary valves and fittings for restaurants and pharmaceutical companies. In the manufacturing process, it produced 87,842 pounds of nickel and chromium waste.
Most of those toxic pollutants were captured and transferred off site for treatment, recycling or disposal. But the company also reported on-site air emissions of 4,066 pounds of nickel and chromium, which in one form is a highly toxic known carcinogen.
The company’s low-slung factory buildings on Route 98 back up to Clear Creek, just south of the village of Arcade.
The releases, allowed by state and federal permits, put the risk screening score for Steel & O’Brien at 234,422 – more than 3,000 times the median score for the fabricated metals industry nationwide, according to 2020 EPA data, the most recent available. Steel & O’Brien’s score also was 39th highest of 2,570 fabricated metals industry plants in the U.S.
Steel & O’Brien did not respond to requests for comment from The News.
Neighbors in Cheektowaga unaware
Derrick Manufacturing Corp. on Duke Road in Cheektowaga had the next highest risk screening score in Western New York at 52,186, with emissions of chromium, nickel and trichloroethylene accounting for the bulk of it. Derrick makes equipment used in mining, drilling and other industries. Its score was 28th highest of 858 machinery factories in the U.S.
The factory is surrounded by well-tended shrubs in a heavily commercial area. The Walden Galleria Mall is nearby to its west, Cheektowaga Central High School to the north and a neighborhood of single-family brick ranches and comely yards to the northeast, in the direction of a warm and steady breeze on a mid-June afternoon.
Five homeowners living within a half-mile of the plant said they weren’t aware of what the company made or what chemicals it released.
Cyprian Mbeke moved onto Goering Avenue about two years ago and “never noticed anything” as far as odors, or anything that would indicate chemical exposure.
If anything, he said, “we think this environment is beautiful compared to the neighborhood we came from.”
But Mbeke and other residents said they wanted more information about Derrick’s emissions.
A Derrick Corp. spokesman said in a written statement that the chromium air emissions are generated from the welding of ordinary stainless steels and the trichloroethylene releases are the result of applying a rubber glue in its manufacturing processes.
“Derrick works closely with the relevant local, state and federal regulatory bodies to ensure our operations are in compliance with all applicable laws and permits and are safe for our employees and the communities we operate in. Derrick continually explores safer alternatives for all of our processes,” Albert W. Zenner, vice president and general counsel of Derrick, said in an email to The News.
Zenner said the company’s more recent internal data show a 50% drop in trichloroethylene emissions from 2020 to 2021. The plant also recently started using a trichloroethylene-free glue.
Among the other highest scores in the region were Goodyear Chemical, Graham Corp. in Batavia and Western New York Energy in Medina.
The VanDeMark Chemical facility in Lockport landed on the 2019 Toxic 100 Air Polluters Index, a list of the nation’s most toxic corporate polluters, because of a data entry error the company made in a form it sent to the EPA, the company said.
EPA: Scores show potential concerns
The scores measure the potential for chronic human health issues associated with long-term exposure to toxic chemicals. It doesn’t take into account acute exposures.
The EPA cautions that the RSEI scores do not assess or describe a level of risk of a facility or for its surrounding community. A high RSEI score, for example, doesn’t mean that there are more cancer cases near a facility, nor does it mean that a facility is harming people in the community.
EPA spokesman Stephen McBay said the scores should be used as a screening tool “to help identify situations of potential concern.”
Researchers say the scores are valuable, despite their limitations.
“I get asked all the time, ‘Well, what does this mean in terms of cancer cases?’ Or, ‘What does this mean in terms of the risk of some health problem? All I can do is say that EPA has suggested that we not say, ‘Oh, this score means this level of ill health,’ ” said Michael Ash, professor of economics and public policy at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
“It can be understood in a ratio format: That 500 is twice as bad as 250. So, it’s not a meaningless number. But it is very difficult to say, ‘The safe number is this,’ or ‘That’s really high, you have health problems,’ ” Ash said.
Still, he added, a high score is “absolutely a marker” for a community and regulators to begin a dialogue with a company over its emissions.
“A company should be able to explain why it’s using these chemicals at all, is there any potential for greening the process, what steps are they already taking to contain the release or to use less or reduce the releases, and what steps could they take,” Ash said.
Ash is one of the authors of an annual Toxic 100 Air Polluters Index that is based on the EPA’s RSEI data. The index measures the total potential chronic human health risk of U.S. companies by examining the collective pollution of the facilities they own and operate.
The RSEI scores are a more nuanced way of examining industrial pollution than total pounds released because some chemicals can be up to a billion times more toxic than others on a pound for pound basis, Ash said.
Less pollutants than in past
EPA Toxic Release Inventory data show that factories and other facilities spewed a collective 1.3 million pounds of pollutants into the air in the Buffalo Niagara region in 2020, down from 2.3 million pounds five years earlier, The News found.
Those reductions coincided with closures in the Town of Tonawanda of the Huntley Generating Station in 2016, and of Tonawanda Coke in 2018. Huntley, for many years, was the top toxic air polluter by pounds in Western New York, and Tonawanda Coke typically was among the top 20 in Erie County.
Environmental advocates said the EPA data are a starting point, but they need to be accompanied by more regular monitoring of toxic emissions.
Some point to the example of Tonawanda Coke, where the benzene emissions the company reported were just a fraction of what was actually released.
The state Health Department in 2002 had documented higher cancer rates in some Tonawanda neighborhoods, but the coke plant didn’t become a focus of concern until area residents began doing their own air sampling and found high levels of benzene, a known carcinogen.
“That’s why the TRI (Toxic Release Inventory) is a tool, but how reliable is it? I mean, you’re relying on self-reporting, to tell the truth,” said Jackie James-Creedon, one of the residents involved in the neighborhood air sampling.
Their findings largely were confirmed by subsequent state and federal air monitoring.
“I do know that after Tonawanda Coke was caught, all the other air permitted facilities in Tonawanda were scared. So, it was a good thing for Tonawanda, and our air is so much cleaner now,” she said.
The Buffalo Niagara region improved when compared to other metropolitan regions in overall total pollution releases to air, water and land – moving from 44th most in the nation in 2015 to 163rd most out of 893 urban areas.
Still, dozens of chemicals continued to be emitted across Western New York, including sulfuric acid, toluene and cancer-causing substances such as styrene, according to the EPA data.
“While we’re encouraged by the trends, the caveat is, we can and must do better. Communities are continuing to be impacted by pollution that makes them sick,” said Brian Smith, associate executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment.
3M emits most toxic air pollutants
The facilities included in the EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory Program, or TRI, are legally permitted to handle pollutants and to release a limited amount into the environment.
The News analyzed TRI data that tracks the production, use, transfer and disposal of 767 chemicals at more than 21,000 facilities across the country, including 87 in the Buffalo Niagara metro area. The TRI does not include greenhouse gas emissions such as carbon dioxide and methane, which the EPA and state Department of Environmental Conservation track separately for factories, power stations and other facilities.
Among the findings for 2020, the latest TRI data available:
• The Buffalo Niagara region was home to six of the 30 largest toxic waste producers in New York State.
• About 1.3 million pounds of toxic chemicals were released into the air at sites in Erie and Niagara counties; 1.3 million pounds went into the land, and 12,600 pounds were released into the water. About 1.5 million pounds of toxic chemicals were transferred from facilities in Erie and Niagara counties and disposed of or released elsewhere.
• A sponge-making factory on Sawyer Avenue in the Town of Tonawanda was the area’s single largest toxic air polluter, by pounds. The factory, run by multinational firm 3M Co., emitted 334,201 pounds of pollutants in 2020, primarily carbon disulfide. The factory has a state DEC permit that allows it to release up to 675,800 pounds of carbon disulfide annually. A 3M spokeswoman said the Tonawanda plant complies with emissions limits, and the company recently “made improvements to optimize our site’s pollution control equipment that reduced emissions from the facility.” The plant’s toxic emissions decreased by 21% between 2015 and 2020, according to EPA data. 3M also had a relatively low RSEI score, 475, largely because carbon disulfide is non-carcinogenic and has a low toxicity weight.
• The next largest air polluters by pounds of toxic chemicals were the DuPont Yerkes plant on River Road in the Town of Tonawanda, PVS Chemical Solutions on Lee Street in Buffalo and Unicell Body Co. on Howard Street in Buffalo.
• Allied Waste disposed of more hazardous chemicals in the ground than any other company in Western New York, burying 653,895 pounds of pollutants, mostly asbestos and lead, at its landfill on Niagara Falls Boulevard in Niagara Falls. The toxic materials were brought to the landfill from other sources and managed in “an environmentally responsible way,” Allied Waste said in an email response to a News inquiry. The friable asbestos and lead brought to the landfill “are safely disposed of in accordance with all federal and state regulatory requirements,” the company said.
• Nearly half of the 1.3 million pounds of air pollutants released from facilities was carbon disulfide, followed by methyl methacrylate at 17%, styrene at 8% and toluene at 6%. Of the 12,600 pounds of pollutants that went into area waterways, 83% was ammonia, followed by manganese compounds at 6% and copper at 3%.