What was left behind at Tonawanda Coke has become clear.
Start with 900,000 gallons of ammonia waste. Then add the leaky tanks and contaminated equipment. A moat filled with chemicals still needs to be drained, but is considered less of an immediate threat to the Niagara River as once feared, federal and state regulators said of their on-site work.
In the meantime, University at Buffalo researchers are getting a handle on Tonawanda Coke's effects off-site.
As a first step Wednesday, researchers identified three neighborhoods – in the Town of Tonawanda, City of Tonawanda and Grand Island – where they found heightened levels of contaminants, including the grounds of a grade school.
Their next step is to further study just what toxic chemicals are in these areas and figure out if they originated with Tonawanda Coke.
“The arsenic atom, for example, doesn’t have a sign on it that says, ‘Hi, I’m from Tonawanda Coke,’” said Joseph Gardella, the UB chemistry professor leading the soil study.
Three months after the closure of Tonawanda Coke, regulators and researchers report progress addressing the immediate dangers even as long-term questions loom about how much needs to be cleaned up on and off the site, and when.
"The stuff came off of Tonawanda Coke and it landed in our gardens and play areas," said Jackie James-Creedon, a Kenmore resident whose environmental activism a decade ago helped spur the federal criminal prosecution of Tonawanda Coke. "People are being exposed to it. They want to know what's there."
Tonawanda Coke’s boiler was finally shut down the day after Christmas, more than three months after the plant closed.
What took so long?
Environmental contractors needed it to quell one of the site’s biggest immediate threats: 900,000 gallons of highly concentrated ammonia solution left behind by the coking process.
Between the closure and Dec. 26, the boiler house powered an on-site ammonia still that treated and disposed of the hazardous and corrosive ammonia waste.
When that treatment finished, contractors cut off gas to the boiler, officially ending its work.
It’s how the state Department of Environmental Conservation and the EPA said they have to handle threats on the site these days – slowly, carefully and safely.
“New York’s responsible and aggressive approach has resulted in hundreds of successful cleanups strategically designed to safeguard communities from environmental harm, provide flexibility for future redevelopment and meet the needs of local planning and development agencies,” Martin Brand, the DEC’s deputy commissioner for environmental remediation and materials management, said in a recent statement.
EPA officials, federal contractors and site security remain on-site, in spite of the partial federal government shutdown.
It took several days of a controlled shutdown process that included depressurizing and draining the boiler house. Lines to the equipment were purged. Water service – including from its Niagara River source – was turned off.
Dismantling and removing secondary containment “moats” was to have started last week, but was postponed because of weather, the DEC said.
The moats surround tanks and equipment and were designed to collect spilled chemicals in the event of leaks.
One particular moat – surrounding the ammonia liquor tanks – gained attention last fall when an EPA inspector said in a court document that chemicals in the moat, if inundated by stormwater or snow melt, could contaminate groundwater and the nearby Niagara River.
The DEC said a mobile tank system will capture the stormwater and snow melt inside secondary containment moats and treat the contaminated water on-site before releasing it into the sewer system.
Contractors will then decontaminate the floor and sidewalls of all the moats and equipment before dismantling them, the DEC said.
The agency said it’s not aware of any additional issues that are immediate threats to public health or the environment. That was just the beginning of the on-site cleanup.
“After the EPA’s work to stabilize and secure the site is complete, a comprehensive investigation is necessary to understand the full nature and extent of contamination,” Brand said.
UB researchers identified three areas near Tonawanda Coke that need more extensive soil sampling:
- An area in the Town of Tonawanda surrounding the River Road plant and a nearby residential neighborhood east of it.
- An area in the City of Tonawanda downwind of the plant to the northeast.
- A neighborhood in southeastern Grand Island across the Niagara River from the plant.
Initial soil screening revealed higher levels of pollutants that included heavy metals like lead, mercury, cyanide and arsenic, PCBs and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, a class of chemicals linked to increased rates of cancer. In all, 169 chemicals were surveyed.
“We have data now to say what we should focus on,” said Gardella, the UB chemistry professor leading the soil sampling project. “Those three areas are not a big surprise, but we determined those areas by an analysis of the data.”
One of the sampling locations – near a pedestrian bridge at William Kaegebein Elementary School on Grand Island – showed elevated levels of arsenic and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in the soil. Kaegebein is across the Niagara River about 1.5 miles northwest of the plant.
School officials, at a community meeting last month, said health experts said the findings didn't "present a cause for concern due to the limited potential for exposure," but the district closed the area "out of an overabundance of caution."
Gardella and his team of researchers shared their preliminary findings at a community meeting Wednesday evening. Maps and data – reviewed by the EPA, DEC and a community advisory committee – were presented.
"This is sort of the official meeting to live up to the promise we made that we'd release these maps," Gardella said.
But even residents at the presentation were likely to have more questions than answers about how exposed they are to toxins from Tonawanda Coke, said James-Creedon, the Kenmore resident.
"People are asking that question, and people are going to continue to ask that question," she said. "And, we're not going to have these questions answered with this UB study."
UB should release all of the raw data to the community, not just a distilled version of it, she said.
"It's hard for us to say what's there because we haven't seen the data," James-Creedon said.
Gardella said individual data can't legally be made public because it's protected by confidentiality agreements between property owners and UB.
It was those agreements that permitted the university to access otherwise private residential properties, Gardella said.
The initial screening included soil samples from more than 180 properties along the path of historical emissions from Tonawanda Coke. This was done to identify where some of Tonawanda Coke’s biggest toxins may be hidden. Researchers' next steps involve homing in on properties in these focus areas to document relative levels of contaminants and try to determine whether they originated from Tonawanda Coke.
It won’t be an easy – or a quick – endeavor.
So far, 135 properties have been tested as part of the next phase of the study. UB officials expect sampling could continue this year.
Samples were also taken from the Tonawanda Coke site that will assist researchers from UB and SUNY Fredonia to apply advanced analytical and statistical techniques in an effort to apportion levels of pollutants in the soil back to Tonawanda Coke.