Tonawanda Coke Soil Study

Published September 24, 2018

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 including a local community organization. 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, which began in 2017, 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.

Where is the study being conducted?

Soil samples are being 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.

Property owners in these areas who are interested in participating or learning more about the soil study can contact Katie Little, community organizer for the Tonawanda Coke Soil Study, at klittle@buffalo.edu or 716-400-9410.

Will everyone who is interested be able to get their soil tested?

Hundreds of properties will be 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.

Property owners who are interested in participating or learning more about the soil study can contact Katie Little, community organizer for the Tonawanda Coke Soil Study, at klittle@buffalo.edu or 716-400-9410, or Tammy Milillo, UB research assistant professor of chemistry, at milillo@buffalo.edu or 716-645-4168.

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.

Who is conducting the study?

Soil sampling is being conducted by UB researchers and community partners, including Citizen Science Community Resources (CSCR). A laboratory certified by New York State to conduct environmental testing — ALS Environmental in Rochester, New York — will analyze 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. Gardella is one of Western New York’s most well-known environmental researchers. He has about 40 years of experience studying the environmental impact of industrial pollutants, with important projects focused on air and soil pollution.

In addition to the core project team, scientists from the regional offices of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and New York State Department of Environmental Conservation are providing independent review of the study.

Researchers have sought and received community input on the study through a community advisory committee that is helping to guide the project, as well as through public meetings.

The soil study team has also gone door-to-door in neighborhoods, distributing more than 20,000 flyers about the study, speaking to many residents in person, answering questions and sharing information.

Has CSCR been paid for its work on the study?

The soil study project work being done by Citizen Science Community Resources (CSCR) is covered by a contract between the Research Foundation for the State University of New York and CSCR. This contract has a specific statement of work to be performed by CSCR. Payments and reimbursement of expenses are being handled identically to those for other sponsored projects.

CSCR has been paid for the work that they have documented as related to the soil study project as described in the contract. Invoices that were submitted by CSCR containing non-project expenses cannot be paid under the contract. 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 Tonawanda Coke settlement funds.

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.

During the course of the study, scientists and community partners, including a local community organization, will collect and analyze hundreds of soil samples from communities around the plant. These samples are taken with the permission of property owners.

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

In addition, UB and SUNY Fredonia scientists plan to conduct 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 a soil sample 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.

The Tonawanda Coke Soil Study is being completed in two phases. In the first phase, researchers and community members took soil samples from more than 180 locations in neighborhoods around the Tonawanda Coke plant. Results from this phase are expected to be shared in 2018.

In Phase II, the soil study team will return to areas of interest, including locations with higher levels of pollution, to collect more samples. This will help scientists better understand the severity of the problem and how widespread it is.

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. 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.

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?

The Tonawanda Coke Soil Study is being completed in two phases. In the first phase, researchers and community members took soil samples from more than 180 locations in neighborhoods around the Tonawanda Coke plant. In Phase II, the soil study team will return to areas of interest, including locations with higher levels of pollution, to collect more samples. This will help scientists better understand the severity of the problem and how widespread it is.

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

After these reports have been delivered, important findings will be shared with the public, including elected officials, through public meetings and other forms of communication. Information shared in such meetings will not include results for individual properties. Instead, researchers plan to share maps with contours showing the estimated distribution of pollutants within communities. These maps will provide insight into the geographic area that has been impacted by pollution without highlighting results for specific addresses.

Phase I sampling has been completed, and researchers expect to hold a public meeting to discuss findings from this phase of the research in 2018.

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.

Independent experts at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and New York State Department of Environmental Conservation have conducted multiple reviews of the study. Initially, these experts reviewed the soil sampling plan and protocols; they are now reviewing preliminary results.

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 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.

To ensure that soil sampling procedures are sound, scientists from the regional offices of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and New York State Department of Environmental Conservation are providing independent review of the study.

Analysis of the soil samples is being conducted by a laboratory certified by New York State to conduct environmental testing — ALS Environmental in Rochester, New York — with additional analysis performed by UB and SUNY Fredonia researchers with expertise in environmental chemistry.

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 $11.4 million 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.