TOWN OF TONAWANDA — Two local organizations called on the DuPont Yerkes plant in the town to improve its environmental controls and reduce its air emissions at a press conference Tuesday.
“Simply put, this is about protecting the health and well-being of Western New Yorkers,” said Liz Smith, of the Western New York Council on Occupational Safety and Health. “We believe the investment to protect workers and the public from unnecessary exposure is worth it.”
Representatives from the council and the Clean Air Coalition stood outside the plant on Tuesday to voice their demands: that the chemical plant improve its monitoring program for methyl methacrylate and vinyl fluoride, improve its leak detection programs and install several pieces of equipment that would reduce the plant’s emissions.
Rebecca Newberry, an organizer with the coalition, said that the plant’s Title V permit — which governs how much pollution a company may release and the testing it must complete — grants DuPont several variances. The coalition is demanding that the state rescind those variances and enforce stricter controls as part of the plant’s permit renewal process.
“We are asking the state to require emission monitors … right now they use a mathematical formula instead of actually monitoring the emissions … as well as have better leak detection program that the permit allows a variance break for,” Newberry said. “We want a strong permit to protect an already heavily burdened community and workforce.”
In response, Plant Manager Warren Hoy said the plant’s regulatory process is ongoing and that it has made significant improvements.
“The Yerkes site is committed to meeting all regulatory requirements and operating at the highest standards of environmental protection,” Hoy said. “Yerkes continues to make substantial capital investments to reduce permitted releases. We have also eliminated over 81 million pounds of waste that otherwise would have been sent to landfills each year. While we are pleased with the progress we have made reducing our environmental footprint, the elimination of waste and emissions is an ongoing priority.”
On Tuesday, the activists argued that the plant contributes to the environmental hazards found in Tonawanda by the state Department of Environmental Conservation. According to the most recent data from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxic Release Inventory, DuPont emits 193,837 pounds of methyl methacrylate and 27,183 pounds of vinyl fluoride annually — accounting for 24 percent of all TRI releases in Erie County.
Breathing in methyl methacrylate for short periods of time irritates the nose and throat, and higher exposures can cause pulmonary edema. Exposure to the chemical also causes headaches, fatigue, damage to a developing fetus and may damage the nervous system — causing numbness and or weakness in
“Many of the workers at the plant also live in the area, so they can be exposed at work and at home,” Newberry said.
United Steelworkers District Four, the union representing more than 300 employees at the plant, is requesting that a public hearing on the permit be held.
“The USW has identified important environmental issues regarding this permit application that affect the health and welfare of our members and of the community in which this facility operates,” the union’s comments on the plant’s permit renewal application state. “These matters … constitute substantive and significant bases for denial of the permit renewal application, or the imposition of significant conditions.”
Clean Air’s demands and the USW’s request comes after DuPont agreed to pay $440,000 in fines for violations of the federal Clean Air Act. The EPA said the facility had inadequate pollution-control equipment and failed to maintain a monitoring system for the equipment. The company also violated several reporting requirements and underreported air pollution on its annual statements, the federal government concluded.
In 2012, the plant was fined $165,000 for failing to calibrate equipment used to monitor emissions, and in 2010, an explosion at the plant killed a worker. The U.S. Chemical Safety Board later determined that the blast was caused by the ignition of flammable vinyl fluoride inside a large process tank, a hazard that had been overlooked by DuPont engineers.