We're not the only community to stare at a shuttered coke plant.
A look at others around the country finds troubles similar to those now facing the Tonawanda Coke site: toxic messes left behind, doubts about how much the plant owner will pay for cleanup and nervousness about where it ranks among cleanup priorities.
It took 17 years just to add a closed coke plant in West Virginia to the federal Superfund list.
It cost more than $75 million to clean up a site in Ohio – nearly 38 years after the EPA first investigated contamination there.
Demolishing a Kentucky coke plant sparked a fire that sent huge plumes of black smoke into the sky for days.
So what can be learned from cleanup efforts across the land?
The most common refrain from those involved in or who studied the cleanups is be prepared to wait.
"Don't expect anything to happen in the next decade other than cleaning it up little by little," said Shaun Crawford, an environmental health consultant.
Crawford once worked for the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry and spent a career studying the effects of coke oven emissions on communities.
"It wouldn't surprise me, even under the best circumstances, if that site is still there 20 years from now," Crawford said.
When it comes to a cleanup plan, think big.
Anything short of a federal Superfund designation could be ineffective at the Tonawanda Coke site, said Judith Enck, a former EPA regional administrator during the Obama administration who's now a senior adviser at the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation should formally make a request to the EPA to add the Tonawanda Coke's site to the federal Superfund program, she said.
"There is a legacy of pollution at this site that needs to be fully remediated," Enck said. "I am concerned about ineffective and limited 'voluntary cleanup' or Brownfield-type approaches."
Enck said that although the federal Superfund program is "slow and can be clunky," it allows for a comprehensive investigation into contamination and development of a solid cleanup plan.
"With a parcel this large, there should be no shortcuts, and the last thing you want is the site sitting there unaddressed for decades to come," Enck said.
Fire in Kentucky
Demolishing a coke plant comes with risks. Like fire.
It happened New Year’s Eve 2012 at the AK Steel Coke Plant in Ashland, Ky.
As contractors used torches to prep the base of a stack pipe for demolition, it caught fire. The hard-to-reach fire smoldered and reignited, eventually leading to a structural collapse and explosion.
“It developed some pressure and exploded out the top,” Ashland Fire Chief Greg Ray said.
Miraculously, there were no injuries.
“We had guys down there. When it blew, they were moving out of there,” Ray said. “It threw some metal and stuff, but luckily no one was hurt.”
Plumes of black smoke poured from the site. Hydrants on the private site didn't provide a sufficient water supply to battle the blaze. Low water pressure hampered firefighters, who had to truck in water.
“It burned for a couple of days,” the chief said.
It was reminiscent of the November 2016 fire at Bethlehem Steel in Lackawanna.
The Kentucky plant was imploded in August 2013. Site remediation is expected to take a decade or longer, according to reports.
“It’s just an empty lot now,” Ray said.
Clearing Pittsburgh's air
Thaddeus Popovich and Angelo Taranto co-founded Allegheny County Clean Air Now in 2014 and went to war against Shenango Coke on Neville Island near Pittsburgh.
Less than two years later, the company closed. It was razed by implosion last May.
“Be in touch with as many people as you can who have influence,” Popovich said.
After unsuccessful attempts to negotiate with plant operators, ACCAN partnered with a Carnegie Mellon University laboratory. “The Shenango Channel” was born, broadcasting images to anyone with internet access video of the black sooty air that huffed from the plant’s smokestacks into nearby neighborhoods.
It pushed the Allegheny County Health Department to act. Fines for environmental pollution totaled in the millions.
The organization mobilized the community to demand an end to pollution that many said left their homes routinely stained with an oily, black soot and their family members riddled with breathing problems, asthma and cancers. And, it published the personal stories from 21 residents who were “Living Downwind.”
Still, Popovich said ACCAN’s work remains unfinished.
DTE Energy of Michigan kept control of its property, and it also led the cleanup. That means, unlike at Tonawanda Coke, there’s no direct on-site oversight from EPA or the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.
“We don’t have that right here,” Popovich said. “That’s the big difference. It’s not an open book like it is in your case.”
So ACCAN deputized volunteers to keep an eye on the cleanup from the hills overlooking Neville Island – a 2½ square mile island in the Ohio River.
It’s unclear what’s next for the site.
“That’s the problem,” Popovich said. “We don’t know.”
The wait in West Virginia
There’s nothing quick about turning a site polluted by generations of coke production into usable land.
Ask the people of Fairmont, W.Va.
Dogged by federal violations of the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, Sharon Steel Corp.’s Fairmont Coke Works shut down in 1979. The parent company tried remediating the site on its own, but couldn’t afford it. It declared bankruptcy in 1992.
That left the bulk of the cleanup of the site’s 97 acres along the shoreline of the Monongahela River to the EPA and West Virginia’s Department of Environmental Protection. After state authorities alerted EPA, it was added to the federal Superfund’s National Priorities List in 1996 and remediation restarted in 2003.
Over that time, the plant was razed, hot spots of toxic chemical compounds and metals were identified and removed, 1.5 million gallons of benzene-laced water was processed along with tens of thousands of gallons of contaminated oils and 250 containers of unknown chemicals, according to the EPA.
The EPA returned to the site in 2016 to address contaminated groundwater and wetlands. The federal agency developed plans over the last year to treat and monitor groundwater contamination and restore wetlands.
Most of the site – except for a newly constructed barracks for the West Virginia State Police – remains a vacant, grass-covered field.
Any future construction can’t involve residential development or access to potable water.
In October, court documents show federal and state agencies sued ExxonMobil, the corporate successor to the company responsible for the legacy of pollution in order to recoup costs associated with the cleanup.
A settlement in Ohio
Allied Chemical’s Ironton Coke is cleaned up. Finally.
On Oct. 2, the EPA declared the 95-acre federal Superfund site in southern Ohio officially “ready for reuse and redevelopment.” That came 37 years, eight months and a day after the federal agency completed its first investigation of contamination there.
The cost of the remediation exceeds $75 million.
The coke producing operation ran between 1917 and the late 1970s. It left soil, sediment and groundwater contaminated by hazardous chemicals.
Many of the chemicals are the same types of contaminants found on Tonawanda Coke’s site. At Ironton, EPA investigation revealed some contaminants leached into groundwater, migrated into the nearby Ohio River, became airborne or ran off-site from precipitation.
In 2010, more than three decades after the EPA’s first analyses at the site, the Department of Justice and Honeywell Inc. – Allied’s successor – reached a roughly $10 million cleanup settlement.
As recently as December 2017, the EPA reported 21 businesses, employing 548 people, had been developed on remediated parts of the site.
Fearing 'stigma' in St. Louis
They know about J.D. Crane in St. Louis.
The late Buffalo-area businessman who ran Tonawanda Coke bought Carondelet Coke in south St. Louis is 1980. Crane shut it down and walked away in 1987. That left the city of St. Louis to deal with what was left behind after obtaining title to the land by tax foreclosure.
Contaminants left behind included benzene, asbestos and other toxic chemical compounds, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Missouri officials described contamination as "extensive," and the site was considered one of the most polluted properties in Missouri, the newspaper said.
Nevertheless, Cardonelet Coke got cleaned up with state funds as a brownfield. There was a reason for that.
Officials in Missouri were concerned about "the stigma of having the property listed as a Superfund site," the Post-Dispatch reported in 2012. The paper reported how a $6.7 million brownfield cleanup nearly doubled in costs. Two prior operators on the site paid less than $500,000 each for the pollution it left behind. Crane's company paid nothing. Taxpayers covered roughly $13 million.
Now, roughly three decades after the plant closed, the environmental contractor, Environmental Operations Inc. of St. Louis boasts it mitigated wetlands, removed and reused 80,000 cubic yards of concrete and brick, managed 8,760 tons of asbestos, remediated more than 100,000 tons of soil and treated 1 million gallons of groundwater. The site is clean. Redevelopment is underway.
They call it the River City Business Park.
“The 54-acre business park will offer new sustainable, suburban-like amenities in an excellent, urban location,” the business park’s website says.
Redevelopment, however, has been slow.
The DEC says it has a good handle on the nature of the Tonawanda Coke contamination, but the agency isn't saying yet whether it will seek a Superfund designation on the National Priorities List. Agency officials said they need to complete assessments and a site investigation.
That could take a year or longer.
"We're not quite there yet in the process to be able to make that determination," said Martin Brand, the DEC's deputy commissioner of environmental remediation and materials management.
The agency says it builds its cleanup strategies from lessons learned from other sites statewide and across the country, including former coke production sites.
What's happening at Tonawanda Coke now?
EPA and DEC employees are on-site. To date, surface contamination has been removed in several areas, chemicals in various tanks have been secured, process containment areas have been cleaned and steps are being taken to winterize tanks and pipes to protect from freezing, the DEC said.
That is expected to continue into 2019.
Once the agencies finish that, a comprehensive site assessment will be undertaken and that will lead to a remediation strategy.
"We'll approach this one in the same way as other contaminated sites across the state. Every site is unique, but the principal process we use to look at it is not unique," Brand said. "This approach provides flexibility in specific future proposed redevelopment that meets the needs of local planning and development agencies."