Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Located in Buffalo, New York, an area with 53 industrial plants and the highest levels of air pollution in the state, the factory was responsible for emitting roughly 91 tons of benzene each year, reportedly causing long-term illnesses such as leukemia and lung cancer to rise sharply among residents.
After years of breathing the foul smog, people were ready to act; one of them included Erin Heaney ’09 and current director of the Clean Air Coalition of West New York (CACWNY) centered in Buffalo.
“The goal of the community was to get the company to comply with our demands,” she said.
The best way to do this, Heaney decided, was through a full-scale protest. That rainy Tuesday morning, around 150 CACWNY members, local university professors, and hospital staff gathered together, prepared to stay outside the factory’s doors until they agreed to purchase up-to-date technology and increase their efforts to reduce benzene emissions.
At Swarthmore, this is what Heaney did; she built bridges.
“She feels an immense amount of responsibility towards people . . . she thinks about how she can hold them up,” said Rebecca Newberry, program coordinator of CACWNY.
The protest kicked off with several guest speakers, including Joe Gardella Jr., a chemistry professor at the University of Buffalo. However, the most moving speakers were the community members dealing with the daily consequences of the factory’s negligence.
“There was a women, Donna, who had rushed over here from her chemotherapy session,” Heaney recalled. “She wanted to be here. She needed to be here.”
Heaney’s compassion for others fueled her college career. During her four years, she co-founded STAND – the student-led division of the Genocide Intervention Network, and advocated for better housing conditions in her hometown with People United for Sustainable Housing through the Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility. Not to mention, she set a few volleyball records; to this date, no player has reached her 1,560 career digs and 4.08 digs per set milestones.
“She was really inspiring . . . incredibly hard working,” said Volleyball Head Coach Harleigh Chwastyk.
After Donna’s rousing speech, the protestors were poised for action. “We had some funny chants,” Heaney remembered, “but I can’t even remember them.” The excitement was palpable, but the predominant emotion was urgency; everyone was ready to be able to let their kids play outside, to hold barbecues in their backyards, and to open their windows at night.
More than anything, everyone was ready for the death and disease to end.
Although it has been four seasons since Heaney guided the volleyball program to a victory, the fierce determination with which she led her team still manifests itself in her current job. “She was very motivating . . . she brought a level of competitiveness that the program didn’t have,” Chwastyk said.
Now, she approaches her work at CACWNY with the same passionate intensity. “She’s loyal . . . she always tells you how it is. She won’t hide the truth,” said Newberry. Similarly, “she challenges us in ways of growth and development,” said Natasha Soto, community organizer for CACWNY.
Around 5:00 pm, two TV news stations arrived to document the protest live, joining the reporters from the local newspapers already on scene. “It was actually a big deal,” Heaney said. “We were getting our message out, spreading the word.”
The amount of recognition CACWNY received that day never had its place in Heaney’s vision. “The most challenging time was building the actual organization,” she admitted. However, the group has undergone exponential growth; within a matter of a few years, “we’ve gone from having 400 dollars in the bank to over a quarter million,” according to Heaney.
As the afternoon wound down to a close, the group eventually dispersed, waiting for a reaction from anyone – the Tonagawa factory, the city government, other environmental justice organizations.
While she may be reluctant to admit it, Heaney was a large factor in making this protest to happen. A natural leader on the volleyball court, the lessons she learned translated easily to her lead role in the movement. “Harleigh promoted self-reflection,” Heaney said. “I had a space for myself carved out. I learned who I could lean on, and who could help support me. And vice versa.”
Now, she tries to advocate for the same self-growth and improvement that molded her while at Swarthmore. “She truly cares about people’s development. There’s a culture of acknowledgement at the office,” said Newberry. Soto shared similar sentiments, adding, “she really pursues leadership development . . . we really value our members and their input.”
The response came soon enough; one week later, state environment regulators and the Environmental Protection Agency raided the factory in a surprise investigation, uncovering dilapidated equipment, leaky pipes, and illegal methods of production in practice. Following the bust, the plant manager, Mark Kamholz, was arrested, and the company was indicted and ultimately charged with 20 offenses. The residents of Buffalo were finally starting to see improvement of their polluted city.
Despite this monumental achievement, Heaney viewed it as more than a simple win. “Our end goal was building something bigger than just a victory,” she said.
To her, and the members of CACWNY, this protest was the first stepping-stone to even greater expansion of environmental justice to all corners of Buffalo. “I see us hopefully dealing with other issues our members bring us,” said Soto. “We want communities to grow and be vibrant.”
Playing on the Swarthmore volleyball team, Heaney still remembered the “away game notebook” Harleigh asked all her players to keep. “After every game on the road, we would write down amazing plays that our teammates made, so we could remember all of them at the end of our season,” she explained. Taking a leaf out of her former coach’s book, Heaney now keeps a “celebration board” in the CACWNY office, where “any accomplishment, no matter how big or small,” is written down.
“[Non-profit] is not very glamorous work,” Heaney admitted. “We always make sure we’re celebrating hard work . . . it keeps [our members] motivated.”
Now, three years after the CACWNY attack against Tonagawa Coke Corp., the factory’s benzene emission has decreased by 86 percent. Although it may be difficult to easily sum up Heaney’s influence, both at Swarthmore and at Buffalo, Chwastyk does so in one simple sentence: “she left a legacy.”
– Photo courtesy of ArtVoice