A view of the Tonawanda Coke plant in Tonawanda, NY. The New York Department of Environmental Conservation has confirmed that the factory was emitting benzene and other carcinogens at many times the state's limit.
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TONAWANDA, N,Y. — For the past three decades, Jeani Thomson has been pleading with New York state officials to protect her and her neighbors from air pollution that regularly spreads into her yard from an industrial plant a mile away. Many mornings, a foul-smelling, thick fog settles around her modest house in Tonawanda, a working class town of 16,000 just outside Buffalo. The “toxic blue haze,” as Thomson calls it, smells like ammonia, sulfur and “an oily exhaust.”

She believes it has made her sick. Ailments have transformed her, she said, from a fit mail carrier who walked a 13-mile route into a survivor of multiple illnesses who takes 22 medications and now moves with difficulty on stiff legs. Though only 57 years old, she has only one lung, and half a stomach. Her doctors have diagnosed her with a rare skin rash, as well as asthma and arthritis. Though she claims never to have had a cigarette, her voice has the raspy sound of a smoker. On bad days, she says, she inhales oxygen.

“It’s not anything that I ate. It’s not anything that I drank,” said Thomson. “It’s from living here and breathing the air.”

Whether her illnesses, or anyone else’s, came from the plant’s pollution can be difficult to prove. Still, concerns about toxic emissions rallied Thompson and a small group of other local people — most of them sick, later joined by dozens of other citizens complaining of similar ailments — to force complacent regulators to clean up their air.

Residents started in 2004 by using buckets and hand-held vacuums to test the air. They found shockingly high levels of benzene. With a hint from a state regulator, they figured out the main source was a plant called Tonawanda Coke Corp., a relic of the industrial age that since 1917 has been producing material needed for smelting iron.

They enlisted the help of a plant insider to help them expose practices at the plant. They recruited residents who lived closest to the plant to report to the state and the media when plumes of soot and the odors became intolerable. And they wouldn’t give up.

It took five years of prodding before state regulators formally blamed Tonawanda Coke for the high levels of benzene and moved aggressively to enforce the Clean Air Act. Finally in 2009 the state, together with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, swooped down on the plant for a week-long surprise inspection. Inspectors found it in such a state of disrepair that huge amounts of benzene and other dangerous chemicals were seeping from cracks in worn-out equipment and leaky pipes.

In a cascade of civil and criminal enforcement actions since then, the EPA has accused the plant of vastly underestimating its toxic emissions, operating illegal equipment that pumped untreated toxic gas into the air and failing to use pollution controls required by its permit that would have prevented releases of hazardous particles.

The case highlights not just possible corporate wrongdoing but the risks posed to communities around the country by an environmental regulatory system that largely entrusts companies to disclose how much toxic pollution they emit, and can take years to act once violations are discovered.