Tonawanda Coke and the fight for clean air

Matthew and I have always been very excited about the potential of LittleSis as a research tool and platform for activists. It’s a big reason we built it: we wanted to put a cutting-edge research tool in the hands of people who were challenging power. Journalists working to monitor centers of power, but also organizers aiming to influence policy and win concessions from “the powers that be.”

Erin Heaney — the special projects coordinator for LittleSis until last month — is doing just that, as the new executive director of the Clean Air Coalition of Western New York. The Clean Air Coalition is engaged in an epic fight with Tonawanda Coke, which has been found to be emitting dangerous levels of benzene into the air — as much as 75 times the appropriate levels, according to the Department of Environmental Conservation.

Many members of the coalition have cancer or other serious illnesses due to the toxic levels of benzene in the air.

The plant’s owner, JD Crane, has repeatedly refused meetings with the Clean Air Coalition. This is all-too-common when people in power get pressured by activists: they hide and hope the problem goes away. And usually the problem, in the minds of people like Crane, is the people who are breaking their silence and getting organized. Because everything was just fine before, when no one was causing a stink about benzene levels, cancer, and so on.

JD Crane
JD Crane

In order to help them understand Crane and Tonawanda Coke, Erin and other coalition members have been doing some research using LittleSis. Who does JD Crane give money to? Who are his key business partners and associates? Who are his clients? What motivates him?

Last Wednesday, they organized a LittleSis editing party to map Crane’s ties to the local power structure, including his generous political giving habits.

In order to organize effectively, it’s essential to answer these kinds of questions about the people and organizations standing in the way of change, and LittleSis was designed to help activists do just that.

Yesterday, the Clean Air Coalition held a rally outside Tonawanda Coke, re-stating their simple demands.

Lesley Horowitz protesting at Tonawanda Coke (from the Buffalo News).
Lesley Horowitz protesting at Tonawanda Coke (from the Buffalo News).

JD Crane didn’t show. But given the coalition’s momentum, I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before he is forced to respond.

We wish Erin and the Clean Air Coalition the best of luck. We hope to help any way we can. We also hope to see more activists begin using LittleSis to conduct research and organize their efforts — drop a line if you’d like help getting started!