More Tonawanda pollution problems: Tests show soil contamination

News and analysis by Dan Telvock, Investigative Post's environmental reporter

Residents of Tonawanda already knew the air they breathe has high levels of cancer-causing benzene.

Now some believe the soil they garden in and that their children play on might be contaminated, too.

Jackie James Creedon, a leader of the Tonawanda Community Fund, said members took soil samples from five yards, two at a playground and one from Beaver Island State Park last November after they had discovered a black gooey substance and soot on their vehicles and gardens.

The tests were taken from soil at residences on Kaufman, James and Sawyers avenues—all of which are in the middle of an industrial corridor in Tonawanda. Beaver Island State Park is about a mile away and upwind of the industrial corridor. Test results from the park were compared with the samples taken closer to the industrial corridor.

Test America in Amherst analyzed the soil for 16 polyciclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) and eight heavy metals. Creedon said three of seven samples had levels of PAH high enough that resulted in clean-up efforts in Birmingham, Ala.

PAHs, which are suspected of causing cancer, are formed during the burning of coal, oil, gas, garbage, tobacco and charbroiled meat. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, PAHs are naturally found in the environment and can also come from man-made sources. Exposure to PAHs can occur if skin contacts contaminated soil or products such as roofing tar, coal tar or Creosote, which is an oily liquid in coal tar. Exposure can also come from vehicle exhaust fumes, asphalt and wildfires.

Here are the group’s interpretation of the results:

  • Many of the same chemicals found in the soil samples were also found in communities in Birmingham, Ala, that resulted in major clean-up efforts. 
  • The highest level of contaminants found in the Tonawanda soil samples were of Benzo(a)pyrene and similar toxins. The levels ranged from 0.5 to 4.1 parts per million, and the threshold for clean-up that the EPA used in Birmingham was 1.5 parts per million.
  • Three of the seven samples from the Tonawanda study would trigger clean-up if in Birmingham if the same standards were applied here.
  • One sample had six of the PAH chemicals above state Department of Environmental Conservation guidelines.
  • All samples (except from the park and a sample from a sandbox at the playground) had at least one chemical above guidelines.
  • One of eight heavy metals tested — chromium — was above the DEC guideline of 22 parts per million for residential soil; the sample found 25.5 parts per million.

Creedon urged the EPA and DEC to test more yards and remove contaminated soil.

“Why does the community have to do the soil testing?” Creedon asked.

Joe Waschensky is one resident on Kaufman Avenue who had his soil tested.

“To me, it’s a real big concern,” he said about the results.

Town of Tonawanda Supervisor Anthony F. Caruana and an aide for Sen. Mark Grasanti both said they’d sign letters urging the DEC and EPA to conduct more soil testing to determine how widespread the problem might be in Tonawanda.

There was no evidence presented that linked the contamination to any single plant in the area. But Neil Carman, a chemist with the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club, reviewed the results and made a link to Tonawanda Coke.

“Tonawanda Coke needs to make more reductions in air toxic emissions and install a perimeter ambient air monitoring system to insure that all their emissions are in compliance,” Carman said.

The EPA’s toxic inventory website shows three companies in the 14150 ZIP code that released PAHs: Goodyear Dunlop Tire (3.9 pounds), Huntley Generation Station  (5.23 pounds) and Tonawanda Coke (482 pounds).

Joe Gardella, professor of chemistry for University at Buffalo, helped oversee the soil collection and testing. Although he did not make a direct connection with the results and Tonawanda Coke, Gardella said the company can do more to control its coke oven emissions.

For example, Gardella said the NRG Huntley Generation Station in Tonawanda installed air control measures in 2010 that Tonawanda Coke has yet to do voluntarily.

“[Tonawanda Coke] should be required to install state of the art emission controls to reduce the excessive burden of air toxins in the surrounding neighborhood and in our region and out of fairness to NRG,” Gardella said in a prepared statement. “Our state and federal regulators should insist on installation by mid 2013.”

Caruana said the DEC and EPA should find the source of the contamination and “remediate as soon as possible.”


Watch “Deadly Deception,” an award-winning series by WIAT-TV in Alabama about soil contamination linked to industry pollution