Investigative Post: Dispute Over Tonawanda Coke Soil Study

by / Sep. 17, 2018 10am EST

Residents who live near Tonawanda Coke want to know whether pollution from the plant has contaminated the soil in their yards and their children’s schools and playgrounds.

A federal judge agreed and ordered the Tonawanda Coke Corp. to fund a $711,000 study investigating how the plant’s foundry coke emissions have contaminated soil in surrounding communities. It’s being conducted by a research team from the University at Buffalo.

That study is now the subject of a dispute between the mayor of the City of Tonawanda and researchers from UB.

Mayor Rick Davis said he decided to pull the city’s support for the study because of concerns over the methodology and what he says is the withholding of funds from a community organization working with the researchers. Town of Tonawanda Supervisor Joseph Emminger said he shares the same concerns.

The UB research team said its methods are scientifically sound and that the project has paid the partner organization for services outlined in their contract.

The ongoing controversy prevents the soil research team from discussing levels of contamination from their testing on public property, such as parks, with residents in the Tonawandas. This is unfair to residents, the researchers said.

A second study led by UB researchers, costing $11.4 million, is considering the health impacts of Tonawanda Coke’s emissions on community residents. Researchers acknowledge, however, that the study might not be able to link health impacts to the company because of other sources of pollution in the area. For that, and other reasons, the head of the Clean Air Coalition of Western New York said the money could have been better spent on community projects.

High levels of benzene

Concerned citizens living around the plant began to test the surrounding air with handmade test kits in 2005. They found high levels of benzene, which is a chemical linked to leukemia. These results were confirmed a few years later when a study from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation found the plant was emitting benzene at levels as much as 75 times higher than recommended guidelines.

In 2013, the company was found guilty of violating the federal Clean Air Act and Resource Conservation and Recovery Act and the company’s environmental control manager, Mark Kamholz, was sentenced to one year in prison.

The company was also ordered to pay $12.2 million for community service payments. These funds are being used to underwrite the soil and health studies.

Most recently, in July, the state issued a cease and desist order against the company. The company is also in federal court this week facing potential probation violations.

The controversy

Jackie James-Creedon, who initially organized residents in opposition to the Tonawanda Coke plant more than a decade ago, leads the community organization Citizen Science Community Resources. This group, under the name Tonawanda Community Fund, made the initial proposal to the courts to have the company pay for a soil study.

The study, which launched in July 2017, involves analyzing hundreds of soil samples from the town and city of Tonawanda, Kenmore, Grand Island, and Buffalo. The research team completed an initial sampling of these locations and will now focus on areas that need further screening. The study’s goal is to link the company directly to soil contamination.

The results could potentially be used to prompt a US Environmental Protection Agency emergency clean up, said Joe Gardella, professor of chemistry at UB.

Davis announced his withdrawal of the city’s support in a Tonawanda Common Council meeting last week, but he said he made the decision a few months earlier.

He said that James-Creedon’s organization has been cut out of the process and not paid for work they have conducted for the study. For example, the researchers have not paid the group for soil sampling tool kits, the creation of a manual to teach residents how to test and a workshop held this spring to train residents, said James-Creedon. She said researchers owe her organization about $25,000.

But the head of the UB research team said it can only pay the group for services included in its contract.

“Payments have been made throughout the tenure of the study,” Gardella said. “We have to review what is submitted in order to determine how it relates to the statement of work that’s part of the subcontract.”

Both Davis and the Town of Tonawanda supervisor also criticize UB for not having the results of the soil tests independently verified, which they said will make it harder for community members to use the results in lawsuits against the company. The Town of Tonawanda had its own tests verified by a third-party consultant. Emminger said the town’s consultant questioned the study’s methodology and suggested it could have been improved.

“We are close to pulling our support, but we haven’t,” Emminger said.

Gardella said third-party testing is not necessary.

“We are not going to do a wholesale set of individual third-party reviews when we’ve set up all of these processes in place to validate and follow the standard procedures,” said Gardella, who has decades of experience investigating industrial pollution.

The soil study’s operating procedure was written based on standard EPA methodologies and with advisory input from both the EPA and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, he said.

In addition, the soil samples are sent to an environmental testing laboratory certified by the state Department of Health that uses strict quality control, he said.

Nathan McMurray, town supervisor in Grand Island, where soil samples are also being collected, expressed confidence in the researchers and their methodology. But he said he is concerned that Citizen Science Community Resources is no longer involved in the study.

Public disclosure

The mayor’s decision means that researchers can no longer test soil from city-owned properties. They also can’t discuss with residents what they’ve learned from the soil samples they’ve already taken from public sites. The Town of Tonawanda has also not given permission to the researchers to discuss the results from town-owned property.

The publicly-owned sites account for about 10 percent of all of the soil samples that have already been taken.

The UB team is getting requests from city and town residents who want to know the level of contamination in public sites, but the research team is unable to release the information, said Tammy Milillo, research assistant professor at UB.

“They are saying: ‘I live by this park, I live by this school, are my kids being exposed to it?’” she said. “The community is suffering from not getting the information.”

In the study, the researchers are not releasing specific results from test sites, but Milillo has created maps that can show residents where there are areas of concern.

Linking health impacts to the company

The majority of the rest of the funds from the court-ordered payments went to a separate $11.4 million, ten-year public health study, also administered by UB. The research team began recruiting participants for the study over the summer.

While the judge’s order for the soil study specifically focuses on looking at the impact of Tonawanda Coke on soil contamination, the health study will have a broader look at overall exposure to pollutants in the area.

The Town of Tonawanda has been home to dozens of industrial facilities in a small area near Tonawanda Coke, creating multiple sources of pollution. Some of the chemicals from the Tonawanda Coke emissions are also found in traffic fumes and cigarette smoke, among other sources. This will make it a challenge to link specific health conditions found in residents back to the company, said Matthew Bonner, associate professor of epidemiology and environmental health at the UB.

“The chemical constituents within coke oven emissions are ubiquitous. They are the byproducts of burning organic material,” he said. “In certain instances where industries are emitting a very unique chemical or compound, that may be the only exposure that is happening. The only source. Then that becomes clearer that the company did that.”

In the case of Tonawanda Coke, that might not be possible, he said.

“We will do our best to try and understand and partition out Tonawanda Coke’s component of that,” he said.

The study will follow the health of local residents and workers for a decade. Initially, participants will submit a questionnaire about their health history and lifestyle habits. After that, many of the individuals will be asked to donate urine and blood samples. The aim of the study is to help residents understand their risks, which will help them to make decisions about their own health, Bonner said. The study is also aimed at informing public policy.

Area residents have suffered from health issues such as fibromyalgia, multiple myeloma and leukemia, but this has not been linked to the company, he said.

Concerns over the health study

Based on his experiences with the soil study, Davis, the City of Tonawanda mayor, said he is concerned that communities could also be “shut out” of the health study.

“I’m concerned that all of this time and effort that went into bringing Tonawanda Coke to trial and them being found guilty and the monies that are going towards these two very important studies is going to be for naught,” Davis said.

“We are only going to get one chance to do this, so let’s make sure we do it right,” he said.

Researchers said they are working with community advisory committees for both studies.

The health study has been criticized by the Clean Air Coalition, which released a statement last year saying it would not participate in the study.

One concern is that the study is redundant, said Rebecca Newberry, the organization’s executive director. Because the dangers of benzene exposure are well documented, she said, the money would have been better spent on projects that actively help the community.

She termed the study “a complete waste of resources.”

While the impacts of benzene have been well-researched, much of the work has been focused on occupational settings with high levels of exposures, Bonner said. There are still a lot of unknowns about chronic levels of low exposure, he said. The study will also examine other contaminants.

“Good public health policy is made with sound, high-quality scientific evidence. We hope we can provide that so policymakers can make good decisions on what to do going forward,” he said.

Sara Jerving is an environmental reporter for Investigative Post, a nonprofit Investigative Journalism Center focused on issues of importance to Buffalo and Western New York. Read more at investigativepost.org.