Tonawanda Coke claims disputed

Contrary to claims by Tonawanda Coke, at least one person was hurt in an explosion that rocked the plant and nearby homes on Friday, sources have told Investigative Post.

In addition, records obtained by Investigative Post revealed that Tonawanda Coke in at least one instance told emergency responders who showed up at the plant that they had not felt the explosion that had been reported by neighbors.

“At this time, Tonawanda Coke says normal operations,” a first responder said in radio communication. “They did not feel anything. They’ve got somebody coming up to talk to me.”

The state Department of Environmental Conservation began an investigation Friday and a spokesman for the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration told Investigative Post on Tuesday that it, too, is investigating the incident.

The noontime explosion shook homes and businesses miles away and caused a flurry of 911 calls to the Town of Tonawanda dispatch center. Radio communication and 911 calls obtained from the Town of Tonawanda police under the Freedom of Information Law revealed that the explosion was so strong that one caller asked the dispatcher if there had been reports of a small earthquake because his house shook so much. Residents who called 911 also reported seeing a cloud of black smoke.

Fire crews were initially confused about the location of the explosion, checking the nearby Huntley coal plant first. Units checked at least three other plants in the area – FMC, NOCO and O-Cel-O – and manholes to determine if an underground explosion had occurred.

A dispatcher said later in the recordings: “[Someone] spoke to Tonawanda Coke. They stated they had a build up of pressure. There’s no need for fire or police assistance. The pressure is released.”

Two sources told Investigative Post at least one person was injured at the plant with a “first-aid burn.” Tonawanda Coke failed to disclose the injury in a statement released Friday by a company executive. In fact, the company’s CEO said in a prepared statement, “no one was hurt in the incident.”

The company has refused to comment since.

“I think what is troublesome obviously is the fact that the they didn’t allow first responders inside the plant when this explosion first occurred,” said Germain Harnden, executive director of the advocacy group Western New York Council on Occupation Safety and Health.

“I think that this shows the total disregard by Tonawanda Coke for the safety of those workers inside the plant during the explosion, and not knowing whether or not this explosion and fire could have escalated into a situation more dangerous.”

Meanwhile, OSHA confirmed its investigation. The spokesman said the investigation could take up to six months to complete.

The plant is no stranger to OSHA.

Since 1989, the agency has fined Tonawanda Coke more than $116,000. The plant owner has paid about 60 percent of those fines after negotiations.

Since 2009, OSHA has cited the plant for at least 16 violations.

Last March, the company was convicted on federal charges of releasing of toxic pollutants that endangered workers and nearby residents. Its plant manager faces jail time and the company millions in fines.

The DEC investigation has contradicted one key claim made Friday by Tonawanda Coke.

Mike Durkin, the company’s CEO, said in a prepared statement Friday there was a “minor explosion” at the River Road plant. “Most importantly, no one was hurt in the incident.”

However, the ongoing DEC investigation concluded a “significant explosion” occurred when gas built up in a coke oven and ignited. The blast damaged the plant, the DEC reported.

“I find it very believable that because of past practices with Tonawanda Coke that they might not be revealing actually what was happening inside the plant,” said Harnden of the Western New York Council on Occupation Safety and Health.