Tonawanda Coke Soil Study

Published November 22, 2019

The Tonawanda Coke Soil Study investigates how pollution from the Tonawanda Coke Corp. plant has impacted the soil in surrounding communities.

The study, which started in 2017, was ordered by a federal judge after Tonawanda Coke was convicted of violating the Clean Air Act and Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. The soil study involves collecting and analyzing hundreds of soil samples from communities that may be in the path of emissions from the plant. Scientists will test these samples for an array of chemicals and try to determine which pollutants originated from Tonawanda Coke. Results will help the community learn more about how much pollution may have entered the soil in neighborhoods around the plant, and what area has been impacted.

The study is being conducted by a team that includes University at Buffalo and SUNY Fredonia researchers, along with community partners. Analysis of the soil will be led by Joseph Gardella Jr., PhD, SUNY Distinguished Professor in the UB Department of Chemistry.

FAQ

What is the purpose of the study, and how will it benefit the community?

The goal of the Tonawanda Coke Soil Study is to understand how pollution from the Tonawanda Coke Corp. plant may have impacted the soil in surrounding neighborhoods.

When industrial plants emit chemicals, some of these chemicals are eventually deposited in the soil after traveling through the air.

The Tonawanda Coke Soil Study will provide communities around the Tonawanda Coke plant with important information about what pollutants are found in their soil; whether these pollutants may have originated at the Tonawanda Coke plant; and how widespread the pollution is.

This knowledge is important because it is the first step in cleaning up the pollution: By identifying the severity and extent of the problem, the research results can inform future efforts to remediate the environment.

“I lived in the shadow of Tonawanda Coke all my life, and I thought this was an important project that the community needs to be involved in,” says community advisory committee member Anne Bazinet, a resident of the Town of Tonawanda who had her soil sampled as part of the study. “It’s important to determine if any of the byproducts from Tonawanda Coke affected the community — if their particles landed on our yards, what they could have been, and what kind of potential clean-up there may need to be, if any.”

About 300 soil samples from properties including homes, schools and churches have been tested through the study, providing homeowners and other property owners with information on what chemicals are in their soil. Property owners receive a copy of lab results for their property.

Where is the study being conducted?

Soil samples have been taken from the areas around the Tonawanda Coke Corp. plant that researchers think are most likely to be affected. This includes southeastern Grand Island, the City of Tonawanda, the Town of Tonawanda and North Buffalo.

Can I still get my soil tested to be part of the study?

Unfortunately, no. The study team took hundreds of samples from properties near the Tonawanda Coke plant. Scientists are now in the process of analyzing those samples to investigate whether pollutants found in the soil may have originated from the Tonawanda Coke plant.

Hundreds of properties were included in the study, with sampling locations chosen strategically based on factors including geography, prevailing winds and the research team’s past experience with soil studies in Western New York.

The team only has funding to test a select number of properties in the study area, but the sampling strategy will provide a good picture of how pollution is distributed in the communities being studied, researchers say. Results from the study, including maps showing the distribution of pollution in communities, will be made available to the public. These maps do not identify individual properties. They are instead similar to contour maps showing general areas where the estimated contaminant concentration may be found.

How are community members informed about their results after soil is sampled?

Soil samples are collected with the permission of property owners. After soil is tested, property owners receive a copy of lab results for their property, along with information from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on general health risks associated with chemicals found on their property.

Property owners are also offered the opportunity to speak one-on-one with the study team to learn more about what the results on their property mean. These individual consultations are performed by phone, by email or in person by Joseph Gardella Jr., PhD, SUNY Distinguished Professor in the UB Department of Chemistry, who is leading the soil study and has decades of experience studying the environmental impact of industrial pollutants on communities. Property owners who have specific concerns about health risks are given information on whom to contact for additional guidance.

The soil study team has also held numerous “Talks with Tammy” events, during which participants and other community members had the chance to meet with Tammy Millilo, PhD, one of the study’s core researchers, to ask questions and learn about the study.

Who is conducting the study, and how is the community involved?

Soil sampling was conducted by UB researchers and community partners. A laboratory certified by New York State to conduct environmental testing — ALS Environmental in Rochester, New York — analyzes the samples, with UB and SUNY Fredonia researchers performing additional testing.

The study team is led by Joseph A. Gardella Jr., PhD, SUNY Distinguished Professor in the UB Department of Chemistry, who has about 40 years of experience studying the environmental impact of industrial pollutants, with important projects focused on air and soil pollution.

Outside of the study team, scientists at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) review and provide feedback on the study’s methodologies and findings.

The community has played a major role in the study since it began. Hundreds of local residents, as well as school districts and churches, have participated by having soil sampled from their properties. Some residents contributed to sample collection. 

Researchers have sought and received community input on the soil study through a community advisory committee that is helping to guide the project. This committee met about monthly during the sampling phase of the study, and members continue to be consulted as the study nears its conclusion.

To keep the public informed about the research, the soil study team has also:

  • With consultative planning from the community advisory committee, held multiple public meetings to update the community on the study's progress, share findings, get feedback and answer questions.
  • Presented on soil sampling results at public school board meetings in districts that had soil sampled.
  • Held numerous “Talks with Tammy” events, during which participants and other community members had the chance to meet with Tammy Millilo, PhD, one of the study’s core researchers, to ask questions and learn about the research.
  • Distributed 20,000 flyers door-to-door in neighborhoods involved, informing residents about the study.
  • Contacted and met with elected officials on multiple occasions to discuss the study and share findings.

Anne Bazinet, a community advisory committee member, said Gardella and the study team have been transparent and responsive when members of the community have had questions: “When you do have questions, you do get answers. Joe is very open and honest. And he does explain things very clearly.”

Bazinet, a resident of the Town of Tonawanda, had her soil sampled as part of the study.

How will the study be conducted?

The study is being conducted according to a plan ordered by a federal judge after Tonawanda Coke Corp. was convicted of violating the Clean Air Act and Resource Conservation and Recovery Act and sentenced to fund the soil study.

In 2017 and 2018, scientists worked with community members to collect hundreds of soil samples from communities around the plant. These samples were taken with the permission of property owners.

After collection, a laboratory certified by New York State to conduct environmental testing tested the soil samples for a wide variety of chemicals, including those found in coke oven emissions.

With soil sampling complete, UB and SUNY Fredonia scientists are conducting further analysis to try to determine which pollutants may have originated from the Tonawanda Coke plant. As part of Tonawanda Coke’s federal sentence, the company was ordered to provide researchers with soil samples from the plant site, a sample of the firm’s coke product, and a sample of air emissions from the factory. Chemicals contained in these samples may have specific identifying features that could help scientists determine whether soil pollution in nearby areas originated from Tonawanda Coke.

Soil sampling in the Tonawanda Coke Soil Study was completed in two phases. In the first phase, researchers worked with community members to take soil samples from neighborhoods around the Tonawanda Coke plant, with the goal of screening for pollutants. Sampling in this phase was done, where possible, in an evenly distributed grid. In Phase II, the soil study team returned to areas of interest, including locations with higher levels of pollution, to collect more samples.

More than 300 soil samples from properties such as homes, schools and churches have been tested through the study, providing homeowners and other property owners with information on what chemicals are in their soil. Property owners receive a copy of lab results for their property.

What is the depth at which you are sampling soil?

The soil study team is focusing on collecting samples at 6 inches below the surface of the ground. The objective of the soil study, as ordered by a federal judge, is to investigate the impact of pollution from the Tonawanda Coke plant on soil in surrounding communities, and scientists think that sampling at 6 inches will provide a more complete picture of this impact than sampling at shallower depths.

When air pollution is emitted from an industrial site, some of these chemicals are eventually deposited in the soil after traveling through the air. This is the pollution that the study team is investigating.

Because many properties in Western New York are well-maintained, with topsoil added during landscaping or gardening, sampling at the surface of the ground or only a couple of inches below may not capture the historical impact of the Tonawanda Coke plant’s emissions on the environment.

The decision to focus on 6-inch samples was made after scientists analyzed findings from soil samples taken at different depths.

During the course of the study, the team has taken soil samples at both 2-inch and 6-inch depths from numerous properties in the study region. Many of the 6-inch samples contained indicators of historic impact, such as quantities of pesticides that have been phased out, that were not present at the 2-inch level. With very few exceptions, the 6-inch samples also contained higher levels of selected pollutants that may be associated with Tonawanda Coke than the 2-inch samples.

How will the researchers know if pollution found in the soil came from Tonawanda Coke?

After Tonawanda Coke Corp. was convicted of violating federal clean air laws, the company was ordered to provide the soil study team with a soil sample from the plant site, a sample of the firm’s coke product, and a sample of air emissions from the factory. These samples may have specific identifying features that could help scientists determine whether soil pollution in nearby areas originated from Tonawanda Coke.

This, along with additional geographic and other analyses conducted by UB and SUNY Fredonia, may shed light on where various chemical pollutants came from. This science is called “source apportionment.”

While there is no guarantee that the study will be able to link specific chemicals found in soil to Tonawanda Coke, advanced research techniques are now enabling scientists around the world to better understand the sources of soil pollution.

When will results be disseminated, and what are the soil study's findings so far?

Soil sampling in the Tonawanda Coke Soil Study was completed in two phases. In the first phase, researchers worked with community members to take soil samples from neighborhoods around the Tonawanda Coke plant, with the goal of screening for pollutants. Sampling in this phase was done, where possible, in an evenly distributed grid. In Phase II, the soil study team returned to areas of interest, including locations with higher levels of pollution, to collect more samples.

In each phase, property owners who agreed to participate received individualized reports detailing the chemicals found in the soil sample taken from their property.

After these reports were delivered, important findings were shared with the public, including elected officials, through public meetings and other forms of communication.  

Findings from Phase I soil sampling were shared at a public meeting in January 2019, and findings from Phase II soil sampling were shared at a public meeting in November 2019.

Findings shared at the November 2019 meeting included maps modeling the modeling the estimated distribution of pollution in the study region. These maps provide insight into the geographic area that has been impacted by pollution without highlighting results for specific addresses, which are protected by confidentiality agreements with property owners.

It is important to note that soil contamination can vary significantly between properties and even within individual properties. As a result, homes, businesses and other properties located in contoured areas of the maps may have levels of contamination that are above or below the general estimated values indicated by the contours.

Large areas within the study region were found to be free of systematic contamination by pollutants the study is examining, meaning that in these areas, concentrations of selected contaminants discovered were generally below the EPA or DEC’s residential soil cleanup objectives. (An SCO is an agency’s guideline for the maximum level of a chemical that should be found in soil after a successful cleanup.)

However, there are some regions of interest where scientists identified a pattern of elevated levels of contaminants such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in some — but not all — soil samples taken at a 6-inch depth.

The study's next step is to understand what fraction of the pollution found may have come from Tonawanda Coke. Scientists at UB and SUNY Fredonia are moving forward with this research, called source apportionment. This involves using advanced analytical and statistical techniques to study whether certain pollutants found in the soil, such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and arsenic, may have come from the Tonawanda Coke plant. Findings from this portion of the research will be shared following the study’s conclusion, expected in 2020.

Will raw data be released to the public?

Soil sampling was conducted with the permission of property owners, and data from individual properties is protected by confidentiality agreements. These agreements enabled scientists and community partners to gain access to and collect soil samples from private properties. The study team cannot violate the confidentiality agreements.

Property owners who agree to participate in the soil study have access to the raw data for their own properties. Each participant receives a copy of lab results related to the pollution on their property (if any is found).

Is the study being independently reviewed?

The study was ordered by a federal judge as part of Tonawanda Coke Corp.’s sentence, and the study team is moving forward with the study as ordered.

Multiple measures are in place to ensure the study meets high scientific standards. Soil analysis is being conducted by ALS Environmental, a laboratory certified by New York State to perform environmental testing, along with UB and SUNY Fredonia researchers who have many years of expertise in environmental chemistry and employ strict quality control procedures.

Scientists at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) review and provide feedback on the study’s methodologies and findings.

The study team is very transparent about study methodologies, and property owners who have soil sampled will receive a copy of lab results related to their property. These results can be reviewed by independent experts if property owners want to seek a second opinion.

How will the research team ensure that the study is scientifically sound?

The study team will take measures to ensure the quality of their work from start to finish.

Scientists at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) review and provide feedback on the study’s methodologies and findings.

Soil analysis is being conducted by ALS Environmental, a laboratory certified by New York State to perform environmental testing, along with UB and SUNY Fredonia researchers who have many years of expertise in environmental chemistry and employ strict quality control procedures.

The study team is led by Joseph A. Gardella Jr., PhD, SUNY Distinguished Professor in the UB Department of Chemistry. Gardella has about 40 years of experience studying the environmental impact of industrial pollutants, with important projects focused on air and soil pollution.

Property owners who agree to participate in the soil study will receive a copy of lab results related to the pollution on their property (if any is found), and these results can be reviewed by independent experts if property owners want to seek a second opinion. This review would take place outside the formal soil study.

How is the study being funded?

A federal judge ordered Tonawanda Coke Corp. to fund the $711,000 study — officially known as “Determining the Environmental Impact of Coke Oven Emissions Originating from Tonawanda Coke Corp. on Surrounding Residential Community” — after the company was convicted of violating the Clean Air Act and Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. A federal appeals court rejected the company’s appeal in 2016, and initial funding for the study was released that year.

Does the study include a clean-up plan?

The study is being conducted according to a plan ordered by a federal judge after Tonawanda Coke Corp. was convicted of violating the Clean Air Act and Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. As part of its sentence, the company was ordered to fund the soil study, which involves determining the extent and distribution of pollutants that settled out of the air from the Tonawanda Coke plant’s emissions. No funding was set aside for a clean-up effort.

However, researchers see the Tonawanda Coke Soil Study as an important first step in any clean-up effort, says scientist Joseph A. Gardella Jr., PhD, SUNY Distinguished Professor in the UB Department of Chemistry. By identifying where pollution has occurred and how severe it is, including which chemical pollutants are present in the soil, the study’s findings can inform future efforts to remediate the environment.

Is this project part of the Environmental Health Study for Western New York?

No. The federal judge that ordered the Tonawanda Coke Corp. to fund the soil study also ordered the company to fund a second, separate environmental health study.

The health study, which is being conducted by a different team, is a study of 10 years or more that investigates how emissions from the Tonawanda Coke plant and other sources may have affected — and may continue to affect — the health of surrounding communities. More information on the health study is available online here.

Has CSCR been paid for its work on the study?

The soil study project work performed by Citizen Science Community Resources (CSCR) was covered by a subcontract between the Research Foundation for the State University of New York and CSCR.

When administering sponsored research, the research foundation has the fiscal responsibility to ensure that only documented project related expenses, directly related to the project’s scope of work, are reimbursed with the sponsored funds.

The subcontract contained a specific statement of work to be performed by CSCR. CSCR has been paid for all properly documented work within the scope of the contract. Additional invoices submitted by CSCR containing non-project expenses or insufficient documentation cannot be paid under the subcontract.

CSCR’s claims to the U.S. Probation and Pretrial Services for the Western District of New York that it has not been paid for work under the contract were unsubstantiated. Probation officials confirmed UB’s proper administration of the study, according to a March 2019 order by the federal judge who presided over the criminal action against Tonawanda Coke.

The judge’s order states that the probation office "received all documents and information necessary to confirm to its satisfaction that the scope and financial expenditures associated with the Soil Study are consistent with the study as approved."

Is the CSCR soil study part of this soil study?

In 2019, a community organization, Citizen Science Community Resources (CSCR), announced that it would help residents who live near the Tonawanda Coke plant test their soil. That testing promoted by CSCR is not connected to the court-ordered study led by UB.

Through the court-ordered study that UB is leading, scientists have worked with community members and local school districts to take hundreds of soil samples from neighborhoods that may have been in the path of emissions from the Tonawanda Coke plant and from local schools. Property owners who have participated in the UB-led study were given a copy of testing results from their properties and offered the chance to speak to researchers about what the results mean.

Soil testing results from individual properties cannot be made public out of respect to the privacy of property owners, whose data is protected by confidentiality agreements. However, the study team is finalizing maps showing estimated concentrations of contaminants in the study area. These maps will be shared with the public after scientists from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) have reviewed the data. The study team, including UB and Fredonia researchers, is also investigating whether chemicals found in soil may have come from Tonawanda Coke, and these findings will also be released once the analysis is complete.

To prevent cross-contamination and other problems, the EPA and DEC have strict requirements for how soil should be sampled. All soil sampling in the UB-led study has been done in accordance with these requirements.