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Suspected tunnel collapse at Tonawanda Coke sparks concern

A tunnel collapse at the site of Tonawanda Coke may result in increased risks for environmental toxins in the surrounding community, the Clean Air Coalition of Western New York said today.

Brian Borncamp, a Clean Air spokesman, said the organization received a call earlier today from a former employee at Tonawanda Coke who said that a waste heat tunnel at the River Road facility collapsed. It remained unknown when the incident happened, however, Borncamp said.

"The risk isn't so much from the actual collapse, but what it means for the coking process," Borncamp told The Buffalo News. "If they can't draw fresh air into the ovens, the process gets really dirty, and there's the potential for really dirty emissions."

Clean Air officials said the waste heat tunnel is an underground concrete tunnel that connects to all of the company's 60 coke manufacturing ovens.

Borncamp said the state Department of Environmental Conservation told the Clean Air Coalition it was aware of the problem, but couldn't comment on the incident.

Tonawanda Coke officials said in a statement they found a partial collapse of the the waste heat air tunnel that connects the battery to its battery stack earlier this spring.

"Some of the fallen debris had created a dam that would not allow water to travel out of the tunnel and restricted air flow," the company statement said. "The addition of standing water in the tunnel, as well as the obstruction, dramatically reduced the temperature of the waste heat air tunnel and subsequently the battery stack."

It added: "We have been working on removing debris, however, the process of entering the tunnel to do so also causes the temperature to drop."

The company said it made the discovery after ambient temperatures started rising and officials noticed operations were not getting optimal performance from its stack draft.

"Once the remaining debris is removed, the waste heat air tunnel and the battery stack will heat back up and Tonawanda Coke will have the necessary stack draft," the statement said. "We anticipate having the necessary debris removed by next week."

The state Department of Environmental Conservation was advised by the company that a section of the roof of its coke oven battery waste heat stack tunnel collapsed.

It may have occurred over the past winter.

"The DEC is thoroughly inspecting this facility and directing the Tonawanda Coke Corporation to provide additional information about this incident, including the results of environmental control devices, to evaluate the extent of the damage and the nature of required repairs," the DEC said in a statement.

It added: "DEC is reviewing data from nearby air monitors. While DEC’s investigation is ongoing, our current assessment is that this incident is contributing to the excess smoke that has been observed from the waste heat stack."

Tonawanda Coke gained notoriety in 2014 when its former environmental controls manager, Mark L. Kamholz, was sentenced to a year in federal prison after he and the company were criminally prosecuted for deliberate federal Clean Air Act violations.

The company was also ordered to pay a $12.5 million fine and fund $12.2 million worth of environmental studies related to the conviction.

Tonawanda Coke ordered to pay $24 million

DEC proposes 'expedited cleanup' at part of Tonawanda Coke site



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