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Could toxic trouble at Tonawanda Coke get worse after it closes?

The first signal of Tonawanda Coke’s impending demise came earlier this year when unusually acrid smoke huffed from its River Road smokestack.

As its coke oven puffs for the final time — possibly within the next few days — residents’ concerns about the plant will shift from what’s in the air to what’s left behind at the site after 101 years of coke production. Residents want to know who’ll clean up the mess after Tonawanda Coke shuts down.

“It’s a great question. We don’t know what’s going to happen next,” said Jackie James-Creedon, executive director of Citizen Science Community Resources. “Obviously, once the air pollution ceases to exist, I’d say that what would be the next concern is what’s going into the Niagara River.”

State Police and representatives of the state Labor Department and the state Department of Environmental Conservation are scheduled to be on location at the plant for two days, beginning Tuesday morning, to oversee shutdown operations, authorities told The Buffalo News Saturday night.

With the company shutting down, residents are left to wonder: Could the story of Tonawanda Coke actually get worse?

“They were being forced to clean up their own mess, but even as they were forced to clean up their mess, they were making more of a mess,” James-Creedon said. “If you look at the aerial photos taken, that big black splotch is Tonawanda Coke."

To those who are worried, the state Department of Environmental Conservation says it has the situation under control.

Three sites on Tonawanda Coke’s 160-acre footprint are already classified among some 198 sites in Erie County in the State Superfund Program, including a spot at Tonawanda Coke the DEC marked last year for “expedited cleanup” where it found coal tar deposits and elevated levels of arsenic, cyanide and other hazardous chemicals.

DEC officials said the agency will keep the community informed of any activities on the site as Tonawanda Coke discloses its official date and procedures for closure.

“DEC is committed to ensuring the Tonawanda community and the workers at the Tonawanda Coke facility are safe during the shutdown of the plant and are demanding the company undertake a safe and orderly closure,” DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos told the Buffalo News in a statement. “DEC experts will be a constant presence at the site as closure operation commences, and we will ensure a comprehensive investigation of any potential contamination is launched to safeguard the Tonawanda community.”

The News made repeated efforts Friday and Saturday to reach Tonawanda Coke and its owner, Paul A. Saffrin, but did not receive any response to its inquiries.

What’s there?

Investigations over the years have revealed a cocktail of hazardous waste in soils on the site, including heavy metals and carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons like benzoanthracene, benzopyrene and indenopyrene. Cyanide and arsenic have also been detected.

On Friday, a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency environmental engineer told federal Judge William M. Skretny in an affidavit that he was concerned about an open-air moat on the site near some chemical tanks that contained oily liquid. Once abandoned, the official feared the chemicals could wind up in the nearby river during heavy rains.

The official also expressed concerns about how the coke ovens will be secured after the plant is shut down with threats from possible asbestos or other chemical compounds like tars and sludge that have coated the ovens over years of industrial production at the site.

“Stopping the air pollution is a significant benefit to the community there,” said Dr. Shaun Crawford, an environmental health consultant. “If they get into the groundwater, they can definitely migrate off-site. That’s probably the next biggest concern.”

Crawford, who once worked for the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, has spent his career studying the effects of coke oven emissions on communities. He’s done investigative work surrounding a Birmingham, Ala., coke plant and is offering consulting advice to the Tonawanda citizen science group.

Crawford said, in his experience, there’s a typical process when a coke foundry closes: The company will close, file for bankruptcy and walk away. A chain-link fence goes up around the property followed by signs warning against trespassers. Then come the evaluations, investigations and studies about what toxins remain, but Crawford said it could be decades before anything is really done for a costly clean-up.

“That leaves it to the DEC and the EPA,” Crawford said. “My guess is that it is going to be shuttered and it’s going to sit there for a while.”

That’s pretty common.

Bethlehem Steel closed more than 35 years ago. Environmental remediation remains an ongoing process in Lackawanna.

Allied Chemical left behind a poisoned Onondaga Lake in Syracuse for decades before it got cleaned up.

And Long Island’s Northrop Grumman remains a hot spot downstate as contamination and health impacts continue surfacing two decades after manufacturing there ceased.

There are more Superfund sites — defined by the EPA as sites that “are uncontrolled or abandoned sites or properties where hazardous waste or other contamination is located” — than there is money to pay for remediation.

“There is not really that much money,” Crawford said. “They do get prioritized based on the immediate impact to health.”

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Joseph H. Emminger, the Town of Tonawanda supervisor, is anxious to find out what is in the ground on the Tonawanda Coke site and how much the company will contribute to cleanup expenses. He spoke briefly Friday night with DEC officials and told The Buffalo News he will talk with them again Monday.

Emminger hopes to receive more details on Monday about hazardous substances on the site.

“For years, we have concentrated on pollution in the air there and how it affects our town. Now, we have to take a look at what is in the ground,” Emminger said Saturday. “I’ve never been given any indication that it is a catastrophic situation, but we are concerned about the site. It’s a brownfield site, a contaminated area in our town. The good news is, brownfields can be reclaimed.”

Health matters

If the contamination can be kept on-site, threats to human health can be mitigated, experts said. If not, there could be problems.

“One thing to be aware of and be concerned with is the potential for heavy metal contamination,” said Jessica Castner, a former emergency nurse turned Ph.D. research scientist who studied Tonawanda Coke’s air pollution.

Castner also helped narrow the scope of the $11.4 million University at Buffalo-run community environmental health study ordered by Skretny at Tonawanda Coke’s 2014 criminal sentencing.

That study is progressing. Researchers opened enrollment earlier this year. It’s not expected to be significantly impacted by Tonawanda Coke’s delay in remitting its roughly $2 million final payment under Skretny’s order.

The smaller, two-phase community soil study being run through UB is also continuing. All of the payments for that study were made.

Participating residents have been advised of findings, but researchers have yet to divulge general data found by the testing.

Castner pointed out that exposure to heavy metals like those on the Tonawanda Coke site can lead to birth defects and impaired neurological development.

Another thing to watch for could be chemical-laden dust being aerosolized and carried off-site by wind, she said. Besides being carcinogenic, the known chemicals on the site are linked with increased risk of respiratory diseases like asthma.

Castner said she also fears what isn’t already known about Tonawanda Coke.

“They’re bringing in waste from other industries and integrating it into their process,” she said. “What’s going to stay on-site? That would be something very important for the public to know.”

While Tonawanda Coke was operating, they were, to a degree, at the mercy of environmental regulations — even if they weren’t always following them.

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The DEC said state and federal agencies will work to stabilize the site and ensure the proper closure of tanks and disposal of any hazardous materials.

The agency also said there will be a comprehensive investigation of the entirety of the Tonawanda Coke site to find where contamination exists.

Then a cleanup plan will be developed, with public input.

The DEC added that it intends to make sure Tonawanda Coke meets all of its legal requirements under the Superfund program.

Rebecca Newberry, executive director of the Clean Air Coalition of Western New York, said she hopes government agencies hold Tonawanda Coke and its owners accountable to clean up whatever chemical waste is left behind after the business closes.

“I cannot begin to imagine the amount of toxins that are on that property,” Newberry said.

Residents vent

Kevin Hackett, Cheryl McNutt and Michael Atkinson all live within a quarter-mile of the Tonawanda Coke plant, but none of them had heard about the closing until a Buffalo News reporter told them around noon Saturday.

“It’s about damn time,” said McNutt, 58, who can easily view the coke plant’s tall brown smokestacks from the driveway of her small brick home on Kaufman Avenue. “For the people who live here, it’s been terrible. All the smells. The smoke — some days it is thicker and blacker than other days, but there’s no real let-up.”

McNutt, who has a small Town of Tonawanda playground and basketball court across the street from her home, said she hopes the plant shutdown will have long-term environmental benefits for families in the neighborhood, especially those with small children.

“I’ve been here 21 years. It’s a very serious situation,” she said.

Hackett, 52, who lives a few houses away on Kaufman, agreed.

He said he’s had enough of Tonawanda Coke — not only as a 20-year neighborhood resident, but as a 32-year volunteer with the nearby River Road Volunteer Fire Company.

“I do feel bad for all the people who will be losing jobs over there,” Hackett said. “But for the people who live around here, it’s been difficult. When the wind shifts and blows this way from the plant, you can’t even keep your windows open in the summer. There is this smell — it’s definitely a chemical smell, the smell of something burning, something industrial, nothing like the smell of burning wood or grass. It gets into your eyes and nose.”

Hackett, a former chief of the River Road volunteer company, said he’s handled at least 10 fire calls at the plant over the years. “It’s nasty back there,” he said.

Hackett said Tonawanda Coke is the only business he is aware of in the heavily industrial area that sometimes tries to stop firefighters from responding to calls on its property.

“In all my years as a firefighter, I’ve never seen that with any other business,” Hackett said.

Atkinson has lived on nearby James Avenue for 18 of his 19 years. He said he will not miss Tonawanda Coke when it shuts down operations.

“I’m glad they’re closing,” Atkinson said. “I won’t miss those smells — weird, unique, nasty smells.”

While he said he thinks the closing announcement is “good news,” Atkinson said he hopes government agencies make sure the property is cleaned up in an environmentally safe manner.

“I think it’s good news for future generations in this neighborhood,” Atkinson said. “There are more families with young kids than there used to be, and I worry about the little kids.”

Newberry, of the Clean Air Coalition, said it always strikes her when she walks past the Kaufman Street playground and sees children playing with smokestacks behind them.

“That’s a really strong visual image to me,” Newberry said. “You think about the people who live near Tonawanda Coke — these are the people who have borne the brunt for what has gone on there over the years.”

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Emminger, Tonawanda’s supervisor, called news of the company’s “a mixed bag” for the town. He said he is happy for town residents who have suffered from air pollution caused by Tonawanda Coke.

“The bad part is, we’re losing some jobs, and we have to do everything we can to help those affected get new jobs,” Emminger said. “I’ve been told they have approximately 50 full-time workers and about 50 part-timers and temps. I do not think this closing comes as a major surprise to people who work there.”

Tonawanda Coke was paying about $70,000 in town taxes, Emminger said.

“If we lose that $70,000, we don’t like to lose it, but it is not going to cause tax rates in the town to go up,” he said.

From an environmental standpoint, Emminger said Tonawanda Coke “turned its back on this community years ago.”

“The only people to blame for this situation — the shutdown — are the owners of Tonawanda Coke,” Emminger said. “They have had opportunities to address the problems.”

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