Drop seen in coke foundry toxic emissions Back to News

The Tonawanda Coke plant has shown a significant drop in benzene emissions and made major strides to comply with environmental violations.

The progress was cited by federal and state enforcement agencies to about 75 people Wednesday at an event sposored by the Clean Air Coalition of WNY in the Sheridan Parkside Community Center in the Town of Tonawanda.

The coke foundry was cited in the past nine months by state and federal regulators for a wide array of air, water and toxic waste violations, something noted at the outset by Ken Eng, who heads the Environmental Protection Agency's air compliance branch in New York City.

"I have been at the EPA for 40 years, and I've never seen resources marshalled in terms of going after Tonawanda Coke. I'm talking about resources from our national investigation center in Denver, from our EPA headquarters in Washington, D.C.; our labs in Edison, N.J.; and our own departments in New York City," Eng said.

He listed numerous enforcement actions issued by the federal agency, which so far are being met by company compliance, with more improvements and two major tests to follow.

"There has been considerable amount of cooperation with the company. There is more to go — it is still an ongoing investigation — but we think we have made measurable progress," Eng said.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation's latest air monitoring also was encouraging.

An air monitor on Grand Island Boulevard that previously found levels of benzene, a carcinogen, to be 75 times higher than recommended guidelines dropped to 19 times higher in tests taken between March 2009 and March 2010.

Another test site in the Brookside Terrace neighborhood found levels met the statewide level of six times the recommended guidelines, according to Larry Sitzman, regional air pollution engineer for the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

"It's very encouraging for us to see we made changes at the facility and it resulted in reductions in the community," Sitzman said.

However, Sitzman cautioned more data was needed before definitive conclusions could be drawn. For one thing, he said, coke production during much of the recent testing period had dropped to around 50 percent.

"We want to plug in production [data], too, so we can answer the whole question. We're not convinced that if they go up to 100 percent capacity it's going to double the emissions. The improvements made there could be a huge percentage of the benzene reductions," Sitzman said.

Sitzman praised the plant for being cooperative after years of dragging its feet.

"When we go out for inspections or for testing, there is a lot of work going on at the facility, a lot of improvements being made," he said.

Erin Heaney, the Clean Air Coalition's executive director, said she was encouraged by what she heard, but also concerned about what would happen at the plant once production increased. She also said that, even with the improvements, the plant is still well in excess of EPA and DEC's public health standards for benzene.

Clean Air Coalition member Charles Cobb praised the organization for bringing political pressure to bear to hold Tonawanda Coke accountable.