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Air monitoring showing elevated levels of benzene and other toxic emissions in the Town of Tonawanda’s western industrial corridor has been well-documented. Now a local citizens group is studying whether that pollution has also infiltrated the soil in nearby neighborhoods.

Preliminary data revealed Monday night at a community meeting showed that samples taken from some residences around the Tonawanda Coke plant contained elevated levels of a carcinogen known as Benzo[a]pyrene, or BaP.

“It at least appears based on this preliminary data that those sites maybe a half-mile south of the plant seem to have some elevated levels of this BaP equivalent,” said Michael Milligan, a chemistry professor at Fredonia State College. “We can’t be sure exactly where they’re coming from yet, and it suggests maybe we can do some more detailed analyses in the future.”

A federal jury found Tonawanda Coke and one of its executives guilty last March of polluting the air and ground at its River Road plant. Federal prosecutors have recommended that Chief U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny levy $57 million in fines.

Soil experts who presented the findings emphasized that much more testing needs to be done to determine the source of the pollutants.

“One source could be truck emissions and auto emissions, but there’s opportunities to do more sophisticated work with the data that would allow us to say whether it comes from the coking process versus the truck traffic,” said Joe Gardella, a University at Buffalo chemistry professor also involved with the study.

Jackie James-Creedon, director of Citizen Science Community Resources, used the soil test results to push for more than $700,000 to be set aside for a comprehensive air and soil investigation of particulate material from Tonawanda Coke’s foundry emissions.

“We need a comprehensive environmental investigation,” she told the crowd of more than 200 in the Sheridan Parkside Community Center.

Milligan and a group of chemistry students led by Andrew Baumgartner and Robert Bennett from the University at Buffalo began taking soil samples from volunteers in 2012.

Milligan said there’s no clear answer on an unsafe level of BaP, though the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has set a guideline of 1.5 parts per million.

Many of the samples from the preliminary round of testing came in well above that threshold.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Aaron J. Mango, who prosecuted Tonawanda Coke last year in the criminal trial, also used Monday’s meeting to update residents on sentencing scheduled for March 19 and their rights under the federal Crime Victims’ Rights Act.

“If you feel that you’ve breathed in polluted air – either benzene, coke oven gas, or particulate matter – then we believe that you’re a victim and we’d like you to fill out some paperwork,” he said.

“We’d like to try to persuade the judge that you are a victim,” he added.

More information on the case and specific instructions on what information people should include in statements is available on the U.S. Attorney’s Office website, justice.gov/usao/nyw.

Residents may write their own personal letters and send them to Sharon Knope at the U.S. Attorney’s Office, 138 Delaware Ave., Buffalo, NY 14202.

email: jpopiolkowski@buffnews.com