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Editorial: A little relief as professionals assess impact of Tonawanda Coke

As the cleanup at Tonawanda Coke proceeds, it should be no surprise to find chemical waste. However, efforts by state and federal workers, along with those of University at Buffalo researchers, should allay at least some worries.

The community should be pleased with the level of concern the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Environmental Conservation have placed on the shuttered Tonawanda Coke site.

It’s a big job. Some 900,000 gallons of ammonia waste need to be removed along with leaky tanks and contaminated equipment. But a moat soaked in chemicals that still needs to be drained is now seen as less of an immediate threat than originally feared. That’s a huge relief, to be sure.

UB researchers identified three neighborhoods as containing heightened levels of contaminants: in the Town of Tonawanda, City of Tonawanda and Grand Island, including on the grounds of a grade school.

Among the chemicals identified were heavy metals like lead, mercury, cyanide and arsenic, PCBs and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, a class of chemicals linked to increased rates of cancer.

Now, those researchers are working on the second phase, focusing on areas where consistent levels of chemicals were found and working to determine their source. The task is anything but straightforward, given that 50 companies had permits to emit solutions in that area. “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.

This is not an overall pollution study for the community but specific to Tonawanda Coke. All the work done by UB researchers, with the university waiving the indirect costs, was reviewed by the EPA, DEC and elected officials.

This remains a stressful time, especially in those affected neighborhoods. But it’s good news that the plant is no longer emitting contaminants and that those being found appear to be limited in their distribution. It’s also good news that the threat of the moat spilling into the Niagara River is less than feared.

And it’s a relief that professionals are on the job.

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