Study links Tonawanda Coke to toxins

A small number of soil samples taken from surrounding communities revealed the presence of contamination.

Soil contamination near Tonawanda Coke most likely stems from the now-closed plant, according to a study just released.

A previous phase of the study of soil samples taken from the town and city of Tonawanda, Grand Island and Buffalo revealed high levels of toxins. The second phase of the study, released Thursday in a virtual meeting, evaluated 95 soil samples.

An unspecified but small number of these samples contained high levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, which are carcinogenic chemical compounds produced as a byproduct of burning coal and other fossil fuels.

The researchers determined with 85% confidence that Tonawanda Coke was the source of the PAHs.

“Eighty-five percent isn’t usually what we’re looking for in an analytical chemistry study. We would like 95-99% confidence. So we didn’t get there,” said Tammy Milillo, the study’s lead researcher.

This is likely due to several other sources of pollution in the area. They include a tire factory, an oil refinery and Huntley Generating Station, now closed. Emissions from trucks and cars on nearby I-190, the Youngmann Memorial Highway, and the Grand Island Bridge are also a factor.

“But I think it’s fair to say that Tonawanda [Coke] most likely contributed to what we found,” Milillo said.

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The study also identified toxins that did not result from Tonawanda Coke’s operations. For example, the UB team found high levels of arsenic in the soil of two Grand Island schools. The source was railroad ties used in landscaping. The UB team notified school officials and the site was remediated.

Tonawanda Coke began producing coke, an ingredient used in the manufacture of steel and iron created by burning coal, in 1917.

Nearby residents began testing the air with handmade kits in 2005 and found high levels of benzene, a chemical that can lead to leukemia. A few years later, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation conducted a study that found the plant was emitting benzene at levels up to 75 times higher than allowed.

In 2013, the company was guilty for violating the Federal Clean Air Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. A federal judge ordered the company to pay the $711,000 soil survey as part of the penalty.

The company closed the factory in October 2018, saying he could not afford the cost of the upgrades needed to bring the plant into compliance with the law.

Developer Jon Williams of Ontario Specialty Contracting bought the property at auction in 2019. His company was the only bidder.

Researchers took samples of soil, coke products, and air emissions from the Tonawanda Coke property and compared them with soil samples from surrounding areas..

“The number of elevated samples was low and there was no systematic drop from a heavily contaminated area,” said Joseph Gardella, a distinguished professor of chemistry at UB, who led the study.

PAHs are carcinogenic, but the levels found in the study are no reason to panic, Gardella assured. Exposure is unlikely. Contaminants were not found on the soil surface.

The researchers took samples from a depth of 6 inches below the surface. The team chose 6 inches to ensure they dug through any recent landscaping that might mask the impact of Tonawanda Coke’s ovens over its century of operation.

“Now, that being said, six inches if you’re digging a garden, that’s good information to know,” Milillo said.

The contaminants may affect a small number of property owners, who will receive all study results, including data specific to samples taken from their properties.

But a cleanup isn’t likely, at least not at Tonawanda Coke’s expense.

The 85% confidence level may not hold if landlords wish to challenge cleanup costs in court, according to Gardella.

Even if they did, Gardella said, “the company is bankrupt anyway.”

During the second phase of the study, researchers also found high concentrations of arsenic at Charlotte Sidway Elementary and William Kaegebein Elementary on Grand Island.

“It was actually determined that it had nothing to do with Tonawanda Coke, but the fact that they used railroad ties in some of the construction of a parking lot and playground,” Milillo said.

The contaminants were only found in one area, as opposed to the entire schoolyard. The researchers contacted school district officials, who worked with them and the New York State Department of Health to remedy immediately.

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