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Editorial: Government has to take the lead in ensuring Tonawanda Coke site is safe

When Tonawanda Coke closed for business last month, checking out was not as simple as turning out the lights and leaving a forwarding address. Officials from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the state Department of Environmental Conservation were on-site to ensure the company and its coke ovens were shut down in compliance with regulatory rules.

A potentially toxic stew of environmental pollutants remains at the River Road property in the Town of Tonawanda. A Buffalo News story last week listed some of the hazards: leaking tanks; moats containing chemicals; contaminated equipment; and runoff from underground tunnels.

Various investigations over the years have found a mix of hazardous substances in the soils, including heavy metals and carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons like benzoanthracene, benzopyrene and indenopyrene. Cyanide and arsenic have also been found.

Anyone familiar with the name Love Canal knows that these substances are cause for alarm. Getting them under control will require a concerted effort of time and resources. The way to make that happen is for the state to perform testing and take action to make sure the site is safe. The government then can pursue Tonawanda Coke’s ownership to pay for the cleanup.

Nellie Brown, a Cornell University chemist, said chemicals at the 160-acre site pose a danger to groundwater there and to the Niagara River. She said there is also “a fair amount of air pollution coming off of this stuff.”

There’s a risk to the river from the chemical-laden stormwater lying in moats around the property. The moats were built to contain leaks of the byproducts of producing coke.

A network of piping and tanks on the property are another concern, with the risk of toxins migrating off the property.

“The only way it can stay in place to me is if the tanks and piping are drained and flushed,” Brown told The News.

Equipment known as oxide boxes leave behind iron sulfide that could mix with stormwater and form an acidic liquid that resembles a ground version of acid rain.

The company has been under financial strain and public pressure from citizens’ groups, who warned of the environmental dangers.

After the company’s shutdown, Tonawanda Coke was “in such bad financial straits that they had payroll only for one week,” EPA environmental engineer Harish Patel said in papers filed in bankruptcy court.

The company, which is owned by Paul A. Saffrin, was fined $25 million as a result of its 2013 criminal conviction for violating the federal Clean Air Act.

In court papers, Tonawanda Coke detailed $7 million in liabilities but indicated that figure could grow because of outstanding lawsuits. The company detailed 20 separate lawsuits filed by residents, including a State Supreme Court class action suit with 39,000 potential members.

Three sites on the company’s River Road footprint are classified among some 198 sites in Erie County in the State Superfund Program. The DEC marked one last year, at a spot at Tonawanda Coke, for “expedited cleanup.” The site contained coal tar deposits and elevated levels of arsenic, cyanide and other hazardous chemicals.

There’s no magic wand that the government can wave to ensure that the Town of Tonawanda, the Niagara River and all neighboring communities are 100 percent safe from contaminants left by Tonawanda Coke. But it’s incumbent on officials to commit resources to testing and damage mitigation.

Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, was outspoken this year in calling for the company to be shut down. Keeping a light shined on the cleanup process, and holding the company’s ownership responsible, would be a nice way for him to stay in front of the issue. There’s also a role for state Sen. Chris Jacobs, R-Buffalo, and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer to play.

Tonawanda Coke was in business for 101 years. We can’t wait another century for the company to clean up its mess.

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