Residents of an upstate New York town who've long associated their illnesses with the air they breathe may finally get some answers about the health effects of living next to a toxic polluter.

The town of Tonawanda lies in the shadow of Tonawanda Coke Corp., whose ovens heat coal into material used for the iron and steel industries, and release toxic chemicals into the air.

The residents' long fight to definitively link the pollution with their illnesses, and to hold Tonawanda Coke accountable, were profiled in NPR's 2011 investigation "Poisoned Places."

The University at Buffalo said Monday that it's planning an $11 million study on the health of the town's residents.

After convicting Tonawanda Coke of violating environmental laws, a federal court ordered the company to fund the study as part of a criminal sentence. But the work remains on hold pending the company's appeal of its 2013 conviction and sentence.

Shortly after Tonawanda Coke and its environmental manager, Mark L. Kamholz, were sentenced, U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr. said the company had "released hundreds of tons of poisonous, benzene-laden gas ... into the atmosphere."

Hochul called the pollution "the equivalent to releasing known killers into the community."

If the university study goes forward, researchers would track the health of up to 38,000 Tonawanda-area residents. The study would look at their incidence of several health problems, including cancer and cardiovascular disease, as well as kidney and chronic respiratory diseases.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit