Soil sampling began in backyards last week to gauge the effect of Tonawanda Coke's illegal air pollution in the Town of Tonawanda, Kenmore and Buffalo.
The sampling comes as the state Department of Environmental Conservation revealed elevated levels of arsenic, cyanide and other chemicals were found on a portion of a company site, nestled between River Road and the Niagara River.
The agency proposes “an expedited cleanup" of coal tar deposits in that area.
“We’re very concerned about it,” said Jackie James-Creedon, founder of the grassroots Citizen Science Community Resources organization. “My hunch was that I knew there was a problem right there. That outflow there – we wanted to get it tested.”
The DEC’s investigation included collecting and analyzing samples from the topsoil, below surface and sediments from a drainage ditch on the property and from the Niagara River to where the ditch flows.
Late last year, the DEC put Tonawanda Coke under a consent order to clean up its entire site.
"We're not making a final remedy determination right now," said Chad Staniszewski, the DEC's director of environmental remediation.
Instead, Staniszewski said this interim action will expedite cleanup at some of the most contaminated areas of the site, which are in close proximity to the Niagara River. Then, additional steps will be taken.
Tonawanda Coke is one of 31 hazardous waste sites where environmental toxins possibly get into the Niagara River.
Data from the current investigation is still being analyzed, but past DEC analysis showed at least one groundwater sample had nearly 10 times the cyanide as what’s permitted on industrial sites – 15 times the permitted level of arsenic in one sub-surface sample on the site and “significant concentration” of suspected carcinogens in Niagara River sediments.
The DEC believes the contamination likely resulted during times of stormwater runoff.
As part of a joint enforcement by the DEC and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Tonawanda Coke was required to upgrade its stormwater control operation.
Preliminary findings of the DEC’s investigation show:
- Higher levels of toxins at greater depth in sediment in an embayment of the Niagara River close to the outlet than sediment farther offshore.
- Sediments with coal tar and elevated levels of semi-volatile organic compounds and metals in sediment in the ditch draining to the river.
- Coal tar as much as 1.5 feet thick in areas around an above-ground storage tank farm.
- Coal and fine coke deposits up to 5 feet thick in spots.
The DEC proposes Tonawanda Coke excavate and remove impacts from the coal tar in the ditch and other locations at the site as well as removing coal tar from the storage tanks and the area around them. It also proposes the company clean, demolish and remove the storage tanks and other equipment and any associated impacts beneath them.
"Coal tar isn't something you want to be digging into without having a mechanism in place to handle the waste you are generating," Staniszewski said.
Work could start by end of the month. It will be overseen by the DEC.
Paul Saffrin, Tonawanda Coke's CEO, said the contamination predates Tonawanda Coke's ownership, which took over the site in 1978.
Except for a water pumping station, Saffrin said that area west of River Road has been unused. Allied Chemical Corp. operated the site before 1978.
He said the company is committed to cleaning the site. That could include recycling the coal tar in order to keep it out of a landfill.
"We have the ability to recycle this material. We should take it," Saffrin said. "Our intent would be to recycle it as soon as possible to get the area cleaned up."
Saffrin added: "We don't have a long-term change of use for the land. That might change once it's cleaned up."
DEC officials say getting it cleaned up is a top priority.
"While the new cleanup proposal Tonawanda Coke has recommended represents significant progress in cleaning up contamination at the plant, it is just one part of the overall site investigation," said Sean Mahar, a DEC spokesman.
Mahar added: "DEC remains committed to holding Tonawanda Coke accountable for additional cleanups at the site and will continue to closely monitor implementation of the cleanup to ensure public health and the environment are protected at all times."
Meanwhile, James-Creedon said the first backyard samples of the Tonawanda Health Study – designed to look into Tonawanda Coke’s air pollution on the surrounding community – started the weekend of April 29 and 30 in 30 different backyards across the Town of Tonawanda, Kenmore and Buffalo.
“We’re looking for the same contamination as what they’ve found (in the DEC’s soil and water analysis),” James-Creedon said.
The health study is part of a broad research project by the University at Buffalo, SUNY Fredonia and James-Creedon's citizens organization to investigate the effects of coke oven gas emissions on surrounding communities.
It is funded by Tonawanda Coke under order of Chief U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny.
In 2014, during the criminal sentencing of the company and its former environmental controls manager, Mark L. Kamholz, Skretny ordered the company to pay a $12.5 million fine and fund $12.2 million in environmental studies for the company’s illegal and deliberate air pollution between 2005 and 2009.
Kamholz was sentenced to a year in prison.
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