An explosion Friday in the Town of Tonawanda was either “minor” or “significant,” depending on whom you ask. Either way, the blast rattled the nerves of those nearby who heard and felt it.
A large buildup of gas in a coke oven at Tonawanda Coke caused an explosion heard for miles just before noon when a safety valve activated, and the pressure was released, Town of Tonawanda police said.
There was no toxic spill into the environment, according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation. No injuries or evacuations were reported.
In conflicting statements issued Friday, the company downplayed the explosion as “minor,” but the DEC characterized it as “significant.”
Reports on Twitter indicated people over a wide area heard a loud boom and saw a large cloud of black smoke. Reports also indicated the boom shook buildings and homes.
All six town and Village of Kenmore fire companies responded to the River Road plant in the town’s heavy-industry corridor. Ellwood Fire Chief Gary Stuff said he was told by company personnel that the pressure release destroyed a brick wall in the plant.
A company spokesman said the “minor explosion” also caused a small fire. “All operational and safety systems responded as designed, quickly bringing the situation under control,” Mike Durkin said in a statement.
However, the DEC said its preliminary inspection “confirmed that a significant explosion caused damage to a portion of the plant.”
Tonawanda Coke, which makes high-quality foundry coke for steel manufacturing, has been under intense scrutiny in recent years. An industrial pollution case resulted in convictions in March for Tonawanda Coke and an executive, with fines that could reach $200 million.
The case by the Criminal Investigation Division of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the state DEC police revealed that a few employees deliberately ignored environmental procedures, leading to pollution at and near the plant. Employees were among the witnesses who testified about clean-air violations and the improper handling of hazardous waste.
Firefighters were initially uncertain of the source of Friday’s explosion and checked other nearby industries such as the Huntley Station power plant first.
Stuff, of the Ellwood department, said fire officials were met at the plant’s guard shack by company personnel, who explained the cause of the blast. Stuff and representatives from the town Police and Building departments returned to the plant at about 1 p.m. due to the volume of calls police received and were met again at the guard shack.
While acknowledging that the company has previously been reluctant to allow fire companies onto the plant’s private property, Stuff said he was satisfied with the employee’s explanation.
The DEC also issued a possible explanation: “It appears an overpressurization of the cokeside manifold, which supplies coke oven gas to the flues, caused the explosion. A ruptured disk on the manifold released coke oven gas into the bench area of the ovens. The gas built up and ignited, causing an explosion which damaged the bench area of the ovens.”
But a local environmental group that has been severely critical of Tonawanda Coke called for a full investigation by the EPA, DEC and Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
“Past self-reporting from the company has been inaccurate and has put workers and residents at risk,” Rebecca Newberry, program coordinator for the Clean Air Coalition, said in a statement.
Durkin did not return a call Friday seeking additional information on the incident but said in the statement that normal plant operations were expected to resume Friday.