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How Citizen Scientists Could Help Rescue Public Health From Polluters

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University at Buffalo PhD candidate Kaitlin Ordiway (left) prepares to run a sample in a secondary ion mass spectrometer. UB chemistry professor Joseph Gardella (right) is leading the Tonawanda Coke soil study. Douglas Levere / University at Buffalo

By Erica Cirino

In the early 2000s, residents of a small, Rust Belt city called Tonawanda, New York, began noticing something strange: Over the years, it seemed, an increasing number of people were getting sick — primarily with cancer.


Tonawanda's a highly industrial city with more than 50 polluting facilities situated within a three-mile radius. It was common for the air to feel dense and to smell like gasoline. Residents wondered what toxic chemicals might be in the air and if they were making them sick.

Seeking to answer that question, in 2005 a small group of concerned residents took to their streets armed with five-gallon buckets, plastic baggies, plastic hoses and a handheld vacuum to suck out samples from the heavy, foul-smelling air.

Lab testing confirmed their fears: Air samples they'd taken near a plant called Tonawanda Coke, which produced a high-carbon form of coal, contained extremely high levels of industrial toxins, including benzene — a hydrocarbon linked to cancers, infertility, growth problems and an array of blood diseases. It was present in the air at a rate of 25 times what the federal government estimates an average American is exposed to in a lifetime.

The group's work resulted in a legal investigation, a federal lawsuit and the eventual shutdown of Tonawanda Coke in 2018. It was a major victory spurred by a small, DIY investigation. But the success didn't end there. It led to a first-of-its-kind "chemical fingerprinting" study that could have far-reaching impacts to hold polluters accountable and even prevent towns like Tonawanda from becoming toxic dumping grounds in the future.

The Tonawanda Coke plant in Tonawanda, NY.

EPA / Google Earth

Bottom-Up Research

In 2013 a judge found Tonawanda Coke guilty of violating 11 counts of the Clean Air Act and three counts of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. The company was ordered in 2014 to pay a $12.5 million penalty plus $12.2 million for community health and environmental research that could reveal the full extent of the factory's pollution legacy — the first time in history such a legal decision has ever been made.

Today the environmental component of that court-ordered research — a $711,000 soil project that involves testing for specific chemical signatures in soil to map areas that have been exposed to the highest levels of air pollution — is in its final phase, with its results to be made public later this year.

Residents will then learn the extent of the pollution in the region caused by the coke plant. But much has already been accomplished thanks to the continued work of local residents, who have assumed "citizen scientist" roles in collecting soil samples for study. While chemical fingerprinting has been done before to find polluters, this is the first federally court-ordered project funded by a convicted party and designed by local scientists to uncover the extent of an industrial polluter's impacts on its community by testing chemical fingerprints with the help of citizen scientists.

Experts believe this kind of community-driven project is a cost-effective way to understand long-term pollution legacies from companies like Tonawanda Coke and also to identify additional polluted areas that need to be cleaned up.

"Soil sampling is a surrogate for historic air pollution, especially for the most carcinogenic compounds emitted by industrial plants," said Joseph Gardella Jr., State University of New York at Buffalo chemistry professor and research leader. "Many pollutants in the air end up depositing themselves in soil, providing us with a record of what factories have historically been pouring out, what people have been breathing in and what needs to be cleaned up now."

Fingerprinting Polluters

The scientific process of developing a specific chemical fingerprint and tracing it back to a specific source, in this case Tonawanda Coke, is known as "source apportionment." Each factory releases its own specific mixture of pollutants. They perform some kind of combustion process or processes, and so they release chemicals specific to those processes belonging to a class of cancer-causing chemicals called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).

Burning cigarettes, running vehicles, cooking on a charcoal grill and making a bonfire also releases PAHs — albeit in much smaller amounts. Different types of combustion — including the production of coke, which comes from heating coal at high temperatures — release different types of PAHs and other associated health-harming chemicals, such as particulate matter, sulfur and carbon dioxide.

A soil sample is taken in 2018 to test for pollutants.

Douglas Levere / University at Buffalo

In 2017, while Tonawanda Coke was still running some of its coke ovens, Gardella and his team took air and soil samples on site, as well as a sample of the coke the plant produced, to gather data that could be used to develop a chemical fingerprint unique to the factory. Then they held community meetings where they called on the public for help collecting soil samples from their properties and taught them how to collect samples that could be used for scientific analysis.

In total residents collected 182 soil samples, and Gardella's team also analyzed public data on contaminants from 65 toxic release sites in their test area in northwestern Erie County, New York. The scientists sent both the air and soil samples to independent laboratory ALS Environmental to be analyzed for 169 different industrial chemicals. The results?

"On the Tonawanda Coke property, soil samples had levels of PAHs that were through the roof," said Gardella. "I had never seen anything this contaminated before, and I've seen some pretty contaminated sites."

Analysis of the resident-collected soil samples also revealed high levels of pollution, specifically on properties immediately surrounding the plant; as well as properties east, northeast and west of the plant. Chemicals found in soil samples included PAHs, PCBs, cyanide and heavy metals such as lead, mercury and arsenic. Some of the residential samples in the worst polluted areas had levels of toxic chemicals that exceeded federal and state guidelines that would necessitate a cleanup.

Mapping the Risks

Understanding the kind of pollutants in the area was just the first step. Next, to understand whether or not the pollutants on residential properties definitely came from Tonawanda Coke and not another industrial polluter, researchers need to do more testing. In 2018 the scientists asked residents to take 130 more samples within the most highly polluted areas and began the process of determining source apportionment — matching the chemical fingerprint.

"I am currently building a library of chemical standards from pollutants found on the Tonawanda Coke property so I know what chemicals we are looking for and what its unique chemical fingerprint should look like," said Kaitlin Ordiway, a State University of New York at Buffalo graduate student now working on the source apportionment component of the study.

Because Tonawanda was the only coke plant in this highly industrial area of New York, Ordiway says she's using advanced chemical tests to look specifically for PAHs associated with coke production. These include anthracene, phenanthrene, benzo(a)pyrene and benzo(g,h,i)perylene. PAHs are more complex versions of one of the simplest aromatic hydrocarbons, benzene, a very common — and toxic —emission from industries of all kinds.

"The PAHs I'm looking for have a more complex molecular structure than benzene, and so they can be used to develop a more detailed and accurate fingerprint," Ordiway said.

Chemical fingerprinting and the methods used by the University at Buffalo team have been widely used to uncover sources of industrial pollution, according to Paul Boehm, corporate vice president and principal scientist at Exponent, an engineering and scientific consulting firm. This includes cases for all kinds of pollution, he says, such as from the Deepwater Horizon and Exxon Valdez oil spills.

He adds that "what makes or breaks such investigations" includes the quantity and quality of samples used to establish the fingerprints, considerations of all other possible chemical sources in the area including natural "background" levels of PAHs, the techniques used to analyze the data, and most importantly, the experience and skills of the scientists who are analyzing and interpreting the data.

Gardella and his team say that, after their fingerprinting process is finished, they'll use GIS technology to develop contamination maps with their data that will inform environmental agencies about the exact location of various contaminants. Specifically, they'll determine where a cleanup of toxic soil might be necessary and whether or not Tonawanda Coke is responsible for it or if another polluter is to blame and should be investigated. Gardella says he and his team expect to announce the results in later 2019.

Chemical fingerprinting research and map-making can be time consuming, Gardella says, but when citizen scientists are used to help gather data, it's not very expensive. He believes the process should be used routinely by state and federal environmental agencies to identify polluters and polluted areas instead of waiting for a court order, as in the case of Tonawanda. Because the technology to perform source apportionment already exists and the testing methods are relatively inexpensive, environmental agencies just have to develop the capacity and training to carry it out, he says.

"When that happens, this could become proactive work rather than retrospective work, resulting in better pollution monitoring across the country and healthier lives for people living in areas affected by industrial pollution," Gardella said.

Reposted with permission from our media associate The Revelator.

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Ola Elvestrun, Norway's environment minister, announced Thursday that it is freezing its contributions to the Amazon Fund, and will no longer be transferring €300 million ($33.2 million) to Brazil. In a press release, the Norwegian embassy in Brazil stated:

Given the present circumstances, Norway does not have either the legal or the technical basis for making its annual contribution to the Amazon Fund.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro reacted with sarcasm to Norway's decision, which had been widely expected. After an official event, he commented: "Isn't Norway the country that kills whales at the North Pole? Doesn't it also produce oil? It has no basis for telling us what to do. It should give the money to Angela Merkel [the German Chancellor] to reforest Germany."

According to its website, the Amazon Fund is a "REDD+ mechanism created to raise donations for non-reimbursable investments in efforts to prevent, monitor and combat deforestation, as well as to promote the preservation and sustainable use in the Brazilian Amazon." The bulk of funding comes from Norway and Germany.

The annual transfer of funds from developed world donors to the Amazon Fund depends on a report from the Fund's technical committee. This committee meets after the National Institute of Space Research, which gathers official Amazon deforestation data, publishes its annual report with the definitive figures for deforestation in the previous year.

But this year the Amazon Fund's technical committee, along with its steering committee, COFA, were abolished by the Bolsonaro government on 11 April as part of a sweeping move to dissolve some 600 bodies, most of which had NGO involvement. The Bolsonaro government views NGO work in Brazil as a conspiracy to undermine Brazil's sovereignty.

The Brazilian government then demanded far-reaching changes in the way the fund is managed, as documented in a previous article. As a result, the Amazon Fund's technical committee has been unable to meet; Norway says it therefore cannot continue making donations without a favorable report from the committee.

Archer Daniels Midland soy silos in Mato Grosso along the BR-163 highway, where Amazon rainforest has largely been replaced by soy destined for the EU, UK, China and other international markets.

Thaís Borges.

An Uncertain Future

The Amazon Fund was announced during the 2007 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali, during a period when environmentalists were alarmed at the rocketing rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. It was created as a way of encouraging Brazil to continue bringing down the rate of forest conversion to pastures and croplands.

Government agencies, such as IBAMA, Brazil's environmental agency, and NGOs shared Amazon Fund donations. IBAMA used the money primarily to enforce deforestation laws, while the NGOs oversaw projects to support sustainable communities and livelihoods in the Amazon.

There has been some controversy as to whether the Fund has actually achieved its goals: in the three years before the deal, the rate of deforestation fell dramatically but, after money from the Fund started pouring into the Amazon, the rate remained fairly stationary until 2014, when it began to rise once again. But, in general, the international donors have been pleased with the Fund's performance, and until the Bolsonaro government came to office, the program was expected to continue indefinitely.

Norway has been the main donor (94 percent) to the Amazon Fund, followed by Germany (5 percent), and Brazil's state-owned oil company, Petrobrás (1 percent). Over the past 11 years, the Norwegians have made, by far, the biggest contribution: R$3.2 billion ($855 million) out of the total of R$3.4 billion ($903 million).

Up till now the Fund has approved 103 projects, with the dispersal of R$1.8 billion ($478 million). These projects will not be affected by Norway's funding freeze because the donors have already provided the funding and the Brazilian Development Bank is contractually obliged to disburse the money until the end of the projects. But there are another 54 projects, currently being analyzed, whose future is far less secure.

One of the projects left stranded by the dissolution of the Fund's committees is Projeto Frutificar, which should be a three-year project, with a budget of R$29 million ($7.3 million), for the production of açai and cacao by 1,000 small-scale farmers in the states of Amapá and Pará. The project was drawn up by the Brazilian NGO IPAM (Institute of Environmental research in Amazonia).

Paulo Moutinho, an IPAM researcher, told Globo newspaper: "Our program was ready to go when the [Brazilian] government asked for changes in the Fund. It's now stuck in the BNDES. Without funding from Norway, we don't know what will happen to it."

Norway is not the only European nation to be reconsidering the way it funds environmental projects in Brazil. Germany has many environmental projects in the Latin American country, apart from its small contribution to the Amazon Fund, and is deeply concerned about the way the rate of deforestation has been soaring this year.

The German environment ministry told Mongabay that its minister, Svenja Schulze, had decided to put financial support for forest and biodiversity projects in Brazil on hold, with €35 million ($39 million) for various projects now frozen.

The ministry explained why: "The Brazilian government's policy in the Amazon raises doubts whether a consistent reduction in deforestation rates is still being pursued. Only when clarity is restored, can project collaboration be continued."

Bauxite mines in Paragominas, Brazil. The Bolsonaro administration is urging new laws that would allow large-scale mining within Brazil's indigenous reserves.

Hydro / Halvor Molland / Flickr

Alternative Amazon Funding

Although there will certainly be disruption in the short-term as a result of the paralysis in the Amazon Fund, the governors of Brazil's Amazon states, which rely on international funding for their environmental projects, are already scrambling to create alternative channels.

In a press release issued yesterday Helder Barbalho, the governor of Pará, the state with the highest number of projects financed by the Fund, said that he will do all he can to maintain and increase his state partnership with Norway.

Barbalho had announced earlier that his state would be receiving €12.5 million ($11.1 million) to run deforestation monitoring centers in five regions of Pará. Barbalho said: "The state governments' monitoring systems are recording a high level of deforestation in Pará, as in the other Amazon states. The money will be made available to those who want to help [the Pará government reduce deforestation] without this being seen as international intervention."

Amazonas state has funding partnerships with Germany and is negotiating deals with France. "I am talking with countries, mainly European, that are interested in investing in projects in the Amazon," said Amazonas governor Wilson Miranda Lima. "It is important to look at Amazônia, not only from the point of view of conservation, but also — and this is even more important — from the point of view of its citizens. It's impossible to preserve Amazônia if its inhabitants are poor."

Signing of the EU-Mercusor Latin American trading agreement earlier this year. The pact still needs to be ratified.

Council of Hemispheric Affairs

Looming International Difficulties

The Bolsonaro government's perceived reluctance to take effective measures to curb deforestation may in the longer-term lead to a far more serious problem than the paralysis of the Amazon Fund.

In June, the European Union and Mercosur, the South American trade bloc, reached an agreement to create the largest trading bloc in the world. If all goes ahead as planned, the pact would account for a quarter of the world's economy, involving 780 million people, and remove import tariffs on 90 percent of the goods traded between the two blocs. The Brazilian government has predicted that the deal will lead to an increase of almost $100 billion in Brazilian exports, particularly agricultural products, by 2035.

But the huge surge this year in Amazon deforestation is leading some European countries to think twice about ratifying the deal. In an interview with Mongabay, the German environment ministry made it very clear that Germany is very worried about events in the Amazon: "We are deeply concerned given the pace of destruction in Brazil … The Amazon Forest is vital for the atmospheric circulation and considered as one of the tipping points of the climate system."

The ministry stated that, for the trade deal to go ahead, Brazil must carry out its commitment under the Paris Climate agreement to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 43 percent below the 2005 level by 2030. The German environment ministry said: If the trade deal is to go ahead, "It is necessary that Brazil is effectively implementing its climate change objectives adopted under the [Paris] Agreement. It is precisely this commitment that is expressly confirmed in the text of the EU-Mercosur Free Trade Agreement."

Blairo Maggi, Brazil agriculture minister under the Temer administration, and a major shareholder in Amaggi, the largest Brazilian-owned commodities trading company, has said very little in public since Bolsonaro came to power; he's been "in a voluntary retreat," as he puts it. But Maggi is so concerned about the damage Bolsonaro's off the cuff remarks and policies are doing to international relationships he decided to speak out earlier this week.

Former Brazil Agriculture Minister Blairo Maggi, who has broken a self-imposed silence to criticize the Bolsonaro government, saying that its rhetoric and policies could threaten Brazil's international commodities trade.

Senado Federal / Visualhunt / CC BY

Maggi, a ruralista who strongly supports agribusiness, told the newspaper, Valor Econômico, that, even if the European Union doesn't get to the point of tearing up a deal that has taken 20 years to negotiate, there could be long delays. "These environmental confusions could create a situation in which the EU says that Brazil isn't sticking to the rules." Maggi speculated. "France doesn't want the deal and perhaps it is taking advantage of the situation to tear it up. Or the deal could take much longer to ratify — three, five years."

Such a delay could have severe repercussions for Brazil's struggling economy which relies heavily on its commodities trade with the EU. Analysists say that Bolsonaro's fears over such an outcome could be one reason for his recently announced October meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, another key trading partner.

Maggi is worried about another, even more alarming, potential consequence of Bolsonaro's failure to stem illegal deforestation — Brazil could be hit by a boycott by its foreign customers. "I don't buy this idea that the world needs Brazil … We are only a player and, worse still, replaceable." Maggi warns, "As an exporter, I'm telling you: things are getting very difficult. Brazil has been saying for years that it is possible to produce and preserve, but with this [Bolsonaro administration] rhetoric, we are going back to square one … We could find markets closed to us."

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