“It’s kind of fortunate we have the same name,” Erin Heaney said of Erin Brockovich. Then Heaney described the biggest obstacles of her environmental work, her kinship with Brockovich seems to reach beyond the surface:
“There’s a lot of organized money out there who will ensure theirs is the story that’s told … I always knew I wanted to be watching those in power and calling them out if they weren’t protecting those who they were supposed to be protecting.”
Heaney is 24-year-old executive director of the Clean Air Coalition of Western New York, a Tonawanda, N.Y.-based organization seeking to protect the right of area residents to “breathe clean air and live, work and play in a healthy environment.”
Members of the Clean Air Coalition have been deeply concerned with Tonawanda Coke, a foundry coke plant reportedly emitting dangerous levels of benzene, a known human carcinogen. Recent air quality studies detected upwards of 75 times the amount of benzene permitted by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and in 2009, coalition members including Heaney staged a massive protest at the firm’s headquarters gates.
“I drove up to the industrial area and was totally blown away,” she recalled. “I could see a coal-burning power plant, several chemical storage facilities, petroleum storage tanks … I knew right then and there that this was what I was supposed to be doing. It was a very powerful moment… My perception of the environmental business before I became involved with it is that it was all about individual responsibility,” she said. “We get a lot of challenges both from industries and elected officials who get their money from them. We don’t have power in money, we have power in people.”
In June, members of the Clean Air Coalition found levels of benzene to be at more than 10 times the level considered safe by the EPA following a fire at Buffalo’s Niagara Lubricant Plant.
The group also conducted research about emissions at one of the city’s truck plazas, servicing some 20,000 cars and 5,000 diesel trucks daily. Usually, residents collect their own air samples by an inflatable tool known as “the bucket.”
In the future, Heaney said that she hopes the Clean Air Coalition of Western New York will expand into yet more neighborhoods. She however has detected interest in her organization on both the national and international levels.
“A lot of people hear our name and think we might be a bunch of tree-hugging hippies… But going green isn’t a choice, a lifestyle, or a philosophy…”