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Tonawanda gets federal help to prevent pollution before it starts

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Daniel Robison
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WNED
The e3 program will allow polluters to draw on special perks to modernize facilities while maintaining or increasing current levels of employment, says Anthony Caruana, Tonawanda town supervisor.

Tonawanda has the highest concentration of air polluting factories in New York, with 53 in just a two mile radius.

Carcinogens like benzene and formaldehyde exceed allowable levels, and that’s just the tip of the pollution iceberg.

It’s these dubious distinctions that caught the notice of the Environmental Protection Agency, which has invited Tonawanda - long ranked as one of New York’s top polluting cities - to participate in the new federal program to improve air quality known as e3.  

A different approach

Tonawanda is one of only ten localities nationwide chosen to participate in e3.

Under the initiative, New York State and federal agencies hope to change the culture at Tonawanda facilities, using carrots like preferred financing, and expertise from government engineers, to suggest fixes and efficiencies in facilities that are known polluters.

“Each company is going to develop its own commitment that [the EPA] hopes they will abide by. It’s not an enforcement or compliance type of an agreement. It’s a voluntary commitment that [the company] will do X, Y, and Z,” says Barbara Finazzo, senior policy advisor to the EPA’s regional administrator in Buffalo.

But the non-binding nature of the program could mean it lacks the teeth necessarily to make sure companies with large pollution portfolios do what they say they’re going to do, Finazzo says. And at only a year-old, the e3 program is still in its prototype phase, with fewer than a dozen communities nationwide trying the experimental approach.

“It’s just a different process to look at the front end of the way we do business, as opposed to having to wait to have to clean up at the end. It takes longer to develop the relationships, and to develop the collaborative way to look at how they’ve done business for forever. So it’s a different approach,” Finazzo says.

E3 stands for “economy, energy, and environment,” which Finazzo interprets to mean that companies can improve their finances and conserve energy, while helping the environment.

“A lot of companies like to do that because then they can market themselves as a green company. In many cases it also does reduce their cost,” she says. “They have to look at the business end of it.”

A healthy community

A report on Tonawanda’s air quality to be released in mid-October will give locals a baseline of pollution that the new program can begin to address.

Upstart community group, The Clean Air Coalition of Western New York (CACWNY), helped facilitate the partnership between Tonawanda officials and the EPA.

Cleaning the town’s air will likely prove a formidable task, says the CACWNY’s Erin Heaney, considering the enormous amounts of chemicals spewed out of smokestacks daily.

And while the e3 strategy isn’t as aggressive as other federal and state environmental cleanup schemes, Heaney says this one gives companies the tools and flexibility to accomplish improvements without hurting their bottom lines.

“We want to keep jobs here, but we also want to make sure we have a healthy community,” says Heaney. “So e3 is a way to help companies voluntarily get the assistance they need to help reduce their environmental footprint.”

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