August 2018 Honoree
Executive Director - Clean Air: Organizing for Health and Justice
Clean Air is a community organization that builds power by developing grassroots leaders who organize their communities to run and win environmental justice and public health campaigns in Western New York. It was founded in 2007 by WNY residents who were impacted by environmental pollution and concerned about the impacts to their health and health of their families.
Rebecca told us: "We support resident lead teams in neighborhoods impact by environmental injustice and racism to win tangible changes in communities. We do this by building the community organizing skills of our members, taking collective action, and prioritizing the leadership of working class people and people of color to hold decision-makers accountable.
In Tonawanda we have been organizing to hold the Tonawanda Coke company accountable. Tonawanda Coke is a coke manufacturing plant located on the bank of the Niagara River, in Tonawanda, New York. Clean Air members who live in neighborhoods adjacent to the company’s property have experienced the egregious behavior of Tonawanda Coke for over a decade. Resident organizing resulted in a 2009 raid of the facility by 50 federal and state agents for ongoing environmental health violations. In 2013, a federal jury found the company and Mark Kamholz, environmental manager, guilty of 14 criminal charges, including violations of the federal Clean Air Act as well as violations of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, in regard to the improper disposal of benzene, a known human carcinogen. Tonawanda Coke appealed this decision. In 2016 The United States Court of Appeals upheld both the March 2014 guilty jury verdict on Tonawanda Coke and the millions of dollars in fines imposed on the corporation for its violations of state and federal laws.
Through our work we have witnessed a 92% reduction in benzene, a known human carcinogen in the ambient air in Tonawanda. That was, until recently.
On July 19th the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s issued a Cease and Desist order to the Tonawanda Coke company. The order was issued following numerous resident complaints and state and federal inspections revealing persistent and ongoing violations following the company’s waste heat tunnel collapse earlier in the year. NYS Department of Environmental Conservation has issued 176 violations to the facility since January 2018. The company appealed this decision and has continued to operate. We are continuing to organize to bring this company and its CEO Paul Saffrin to justice."
Throughout the year Clean Air also offers opportunities for people to develop their advocacy and organizing skills. Starting in late September, through a partnership with CEPA Gallery, Clean Air will be holding an 8 week social and economic justice photography workshop entitled Resilience Through the Lens. This series of workshops will teach participants how to use photography to initiate action on an issue and bring tangible change in local communities.
The program will cover the technical basics of taking a powerful photograph, cover the role of photography in the current political climate, and investigate how we can respond to economic inequity and environmental injustice through visual storytelling. The class will take place Thursdays starting on September 20th Registration is available at www.cacwny.org/photovoice. No previous photography experience is required, and cameras will be provided to participants.
Rebecca says she most proud because, "I get to work every day with very smart, passionate people who are rooted in their families and community."