Sure, Ron Meegan is mad. You would be, too, if you breathed foul air for 30 years.
Meegan and others did not just get mad. They got busy. Better to be a battler than a victim – particularly when you start winning.
Meegan is an unlikely-looking warrior – 71, a retired parks worker with graying hair, an easy smile and a “Support Our Troops” patch on his jacket. In 1980, he and his wife bought a $40,000 house off Sheridan Drive, downwind from Tonawanda Coke. On summer days, the lake breeze blew black smoke from the plant across the neighborhood. Meegan's eyes itched, and his asthma kicked in – tight chest, trouble breathing.
“There was a smell in the air, like blacktop after it rains,” Meegan told me Wednesday in a downtown office. “Some people thought, well, you just have to put up with it.”
Meegan suspected that the problem went beyond a bad smell. His suspicions were confirmed in recent years, as Tonawanda Coke was cited for spewing carcinogenic benzene and other pollutants into the air.
“This is,” Meegan said, “the Love Canal of polluted air.”
Another brick was added to the toxic-confirmation wall this week. The state Department of Health confirmed high levels of certain cancers among people living in the heavy-industry corridor that includes Tonawanda Coke. Department of Health officials, however, declined to connect the dots between spikes in sickness and the stuff spewing from Tonawanda Coke's smokestacks, vents and valves.
“It was belittling to us, almost an insult,” Meegan said of the hesitancy by state officials. “They just wanted to cover their butts.”
Granted, it is tough to pin down the exact cause of someone's cancer. Everything from genetics to diet can play a part. Still, it is not a giant leap of faith to link the glut of sick folks in this industrial neighborhood to the carcinogens and other pollutants that spewed for decades from nearby plants. I chalk up the state's reluctance to connect the dots to typical bureaucratic inertia – and a fear of being yanked into ongoing court cases.
The day I spoke with Meegan, federal lawyers gave opening statements in the government's lawsuit against Tonawanda Coke. The company is accused of pumping pollutants into the air and water for years, then trying to cover its tracks. There also is a civil lawsuit against Tonawanda Coke, filed on behalf of numerous residents.
The lawsuits are the bittersweet revenge of the victims on an accused corporate polluter. In the last decade, Meegan and others banded to fight back. They held meetings, passed petitions, took air samples, formed the Clean Air Coalition and demanded help from politicians and long-somnolent government “watchdog” agencies.
The Department of Health report and federal court cases are fruits of their labors. Meegan and others fought back. This week brought small victories – and the prospect of larger ones to come.