Soil contamination near Tonawanda Coke most likely comes from the now-shuttered plant, a just-released study has found.
A previous phase of the study of soil samples taken from the town and city of Tonawanda, Grand Island and Buffalo found elevated levels of toxins. The second phase of the study, released Thursday at a virtual meeting, evaluated 95 soil samples.
An unspecified, but small number of those samples contained elevated levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, which are carcinogenic chemical compounds produced as a byproduct of burning coal and other fossil fuels.
Researchers determined with 85 percent confidence that Tonawanda Coke was the source of the PAHs.
“Eighty-five percent is not typically what we would look for in analytical chemistry study. We would want 95 percent to 99 percent confidence. So we have not achieved that,” said Tammy Milillo, a lead researcher on the study.
That’s likely because of several other sources of pollution in the area. They include a tire factory, oil refinery and the now closed Huntley Generating Station. Emissions from trucks and cars on the nearby I-190, Youngmann Memorial Highway and Grand Island Bridge are also a factor.
“But I think it is fair to say that Tonawanda [Coke] most likely contributed to what we found,” Milillo said.
The study also identified toxins that were not the result of Tonawanda Coke operations. For example, the UB team found high levels of arsenic in the soil at two Grand Island schools. The source was railroad ties used in landscaping. The UB team notified school officials and the site was remediated.
Tonawanda Coke started producing coke, an ingredient used in making steel and iron created by burning coal, in 1917.
Nearby residents began to test the air with handmade kits in 2005 and found high levels of benzene, a chemical that can lead to leukemia. A few years later, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation conducted a study that found the plant was emitting benzene at levels as many as 75 times higher than permissible.
In 2013, the company was found guilty of violating the federal Clean Air Act and Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. A federal judge ordered the company to pay for the $711,000 soil study as part of the penalty.
The company closed the plant in October 2018, saying it could not afford the cost of making improvements necessary to make the plant compliant with the law.
Developer Jon Williams of Ontario Specialty Contracting purchased the property at auction in 2019. His company was the only bidder.
Researchers took samples of soil, coke product and air emissions from the Tonawanda Coke property and compared them with the soil samples from the surrounding areas.
“The number of samples that were elevated was small, and there wasn’t a systematic blob of an area that had high contamination,” said Joseph Gardella, a distinguished professor of chemistry at UB, who led the study.
PAHs are carcinogenic, but the levels found in the study aren’t reason for panic, Gardella assured. Exposure isn’t likely. The contaminants weren’t found at the surface of the soil.
Researchers took samples at a 6-inch depth under the surface. The team chose 6 inches to be sure they were digging through any recent landscaping that might obscure the impact of Tonawanda Coke’s ovens over its century of operation.
“Now that being said, six inches if you’re digging a garden, it’s good information to know,” Milillo said.
The contaminants may affect a small number of homeowners, all of whom will receive the results of the study, including the data specific to the samples taken on their properties.
But a cleanup isn’t likely, at least not on the dime of Tonawanda Coke.
The 85 percent level of confidence might not hold up if property owners want to dispute cleanup costs in court, according to Gardella.
Even if they did, Gardella said, “the company is bankrupt anyways.”
During the second phase of the study, researchers also discovered high concentrations of arsenic at Charlotte Sidway Elementary and William Kaegebein Elementary in Grand Island.
“It was actually determined not to have anything to do with Tonawanda Coke, but the fact that they used railroad ties in some of the constructions of both a parking lot and a playground,” Milillo said.
The contaminants were found only in one area, as opposed to across school grounds. Researchers contacted school district officials, who worked with them and the New York State Department of Health to immediately remediate.