By Barbara O'Brien and T.J. Pignataro
Tonawanda Coke is planning to shut its plant Tuesday morning, according to an environmental engineer from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The company employs 75 to 100 workers.
The company planned to charge the last oven at 8 a.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 16 and tell employees that the facility was shutting down, according to Harish Patel, environmental engineer with the senior enforcement team in the air compliance branch of the EPA. The company said 10 employees will be needed to shut down the facility, he added.
Tonawanda Coke informed federal and state agencies that the Town of Tonawanda company was "in such bad financial straits that they had payroll only for one week," Patel said in court documents.
The company supplied the draft shutdown plan to the EPA and state Department of Environmental Conservation Wednesday night, and "was planning to begin ceasing operations early next week," according to Patel.
Tonawanda Coke, which was convicted in 2013 of violating the Clean Air Act and ordered to pay $25 million in fines and environmental studies, has been under fire for months from state and federal environmental agencies.
In July, the DEC cited Tonawanda Coke for violating state air quality permits nearly 120 times between May 18 and July 6 by releasing emissions above regulatory standards for opacity. The environmental violations were among some 176 lodged against the 101-year-old River Road coking plant.
The violations prompted some residents from Tonawanda to renew calls for the plant to be shut down.
On Sept. 21, U.S. District Judge William Skretny ruled that Tonawanda Coke had violated the terms of its probation from the criminal case, but he allowed the company to remain open. He also ordered that its smokestack emissions be tested for pollutants, the first new sampling in eight years.
An administrative hearing slated for Wednesday to determine whether Tonawanda Coke’s air permit should be revoked was adjourned.
On Friday evening, U.S. Attorney James P. Kennedy Jr. said the government has been trying to force Tonawanda Coke to be more transparent about its emissions, financial circumstances and future plans.
"The government’s objective has never been to do harm to TCC or its employees," Kennedy said. "Hopefully, today’s developments will begin to allow some rays of sunlight to penetrate the dark cloud which this case has seemed to cast over our community."
A statement from the DEC said agency staff will be on-site during the shutdown operations to make sure the shutdown is safe.
“For too long, Tonawanda Coke has been a mismanaged blight on this community, and its owners will be held accountable for any damage to this community and the environment,” DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos said.
He said the state is directing the company to “open their doors” and take all appropriate steps to protect the community.
“DEC experts will be a constant, on-site presence to ensure public safety, and we demand TCC provide all information necessary to fully secure the site,” Seggos said. "After the plant is safely shuttered, a comprehensive investigation of any potential contamination will be launched to safeguard the Tonawanda community.”
The state Labor Department announced it will dispatch a Rapid Response team to assist impacted workers with intensive job placement services and information about how to access unemployment insurance and affordable health care options.
U.S. Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, said Friday the plant's shutdown is good news for its neighbors.
“After years of bad actions by Tonawanda Coke, the community can finally breathe easier. Again and again Tonawanda Coke proved themselves to be a bad corporate citizen, endangering the lives and health of its employees and neighbors," Higgins said.
But Patel, the EPA engineer, raised some concerns about potential environmental hazards that Tonawanda Coke may leave behind. He said officials from the DEC and EPA have concerns about Tonawanda Coke's shutdown plan.
Patel specifically mentioned a moat in the byproduct work area. That area contains several tanks, including the tar decanter and asphalt storage tanks, among others. During a June 2018 inspection, that Patel said he participated in, the liquid in the moat was about six inches deep with an oily sheen.
"I asked what TCC planned to do with that liquid, and they indicated that they were going to leave it as it was, when they left the facility, because they don't have the money to pump it out," Patel said in court papers.
"If the moat overflows during a rain event, it could overflow and contaminated water may eventually go into the Niagara River," Patel said in court papers.
Rebecca Newberry, of the Clean Air Coalition, told The Buffalo News that members of her organization and people who live near the plant are thrilled with the news of the shutdown.
“Tonawanda Coke also has a long history of endangering workers at their plant, in at least one instance resulting in death,” Newberry said in a statement.
The coalition called on government agencies to continue health monitoring at the site, during and after the shutdown. Tonawanda Coke needs to take steps to prevent dangerous “fugitive air emissions” at the site, and the government agencies must make sure the company does so, Newberry said.
Newberry said the coalition wants to make sure the community is made whole and there is a transition for workers. She called on the state and federal governments to put aside a portion of fines to provide a transition for the workers. She said the company also should set aside funds for future remediation.
“We want to ensure that the rest of the facility, as they shut down, is maintained, and that families and community members who live outside the plant are not put at further at risk,” Newberry said, during a press conference outside the DEC office on Michigan Avenue.
“For the immediate danger to our community, that place had to be shut down. That’s what we wanted and that’s what we got,” said Jackie James-Creedon, head of Citizen Science Community Resources, who said she learned of the development from Assistant U.S. Attorney Aaron J. Mango.
“They just couldn’t make the payments. We always knew it would be a financial decision for them,” James-Creedon said.
At a news conference in Niagara Square, she held up an orange plastic Home Depot paint bucket with a yellow lid and tube coming out, that she used to take an air sample more than a decade ago, which, when tested, showed toxins.
“It has to start somewhere and it started somewhere in this community with this bucket,” James-Creedon said. “This bucket took an air sample outside Tonawanda Coke in August of 2004, 14 years ago. It was the start, and this is the end.”
Paul A. Saffrin, the company’s chief executive officer, a company spokesman and a company attorney were unavailable to comment Friday when The News tried to contact them.
What happened at Tonawanda Coke this week:
• Wednesday morning: State's administrative hearing on whether Tonawanda Coke committed chemical storage and pollution discharge violations is adjourned.
• Wednesday night: Tonawanda Coke informs EPA and DEC that it plans "to begin ceasing operations early next week."
• Thursday morning: In telephone call, Tonawanda Coke tells regulators it plans to retain only 10 employees to shut down the facility.
• Thursday afternoon: Tonawanda Coke tells regulators it will take nearly 38 hours to shut down about 30 ovens now in service.
• Friday: EPA engineer files court document revealing Tonawanda Coke's shutdown plan.
News Staff Reporter Dan Herbeck contributed to this report.