Tonawanda Coke Soil Study Progress Update (Nov. 2019)

Gloved hands scooping soil into a glass jar.

A soil sample is taken in 2018. Credit: Douglas Levere / University at Buffalo

Release Date: November 20, 2019

Background

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The Tonawanda Coke Soil Study investigates how pollution from the Tonawanda Coke Corp. plant has impacted soil in surrounding communities. A federal judge ordered Tonawanda Coke Corp. to fund the $711,000 study, to be led by the University at Buffalo, after the company was convicted of violating the Clean Air Act and Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.

The study team has collected and analyzed hundreds of soil samples in neighborhoods that may be in the path of emissions from the plant. Scientists have tested these samples for an array of chemicals, and are seeking to determine which pollutants may have originated from Tonawanda Coke.

Results will benefit communities in Grand Island, the City of Tonawanda, the Town of Tonawanda and North Buffalo by providing them with information about what chemicals are in their soil, how widespread any pollution may be, and whether these pollutants may have originated at the Tonawanda Coke plant. This knowledge is the first step in understanding whether a clean-up is needed, and where.

Soil study team members taking a sample from a lawn.

Joseph Gardella Jr., SUNY Distinguished Professor of Chemistry, who is leading the scientific analysis for the soil study, watches as a UB student (left) and Katie Little, former soil study commuity organizer, collect soil samples. Credit: Douglas Levere

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. A community advisory 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:

  • 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 about 25,000 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.

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.

The soil study is led by Joseph 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. The study team includes researchers from UB and SUNY Fredonia — including UB Research Assistant Professor of Chemistry Tammy Milillo, PhD; UB chemistry PhD candidate Kaitlin Ordiway; and SUNY Fredonia Professor of Chemistry Michael Milligan, PhD. All are experts in environmental chemistry.

Multiple measures are in place to ensure the study meets high scientific standards. Soil analysis is 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.

A timeline of milestones in the study, including soil sampling (2017 and 2018), public meetings, and the study's anticipated conclusion (2020).

Maps modeling the estimated distribution of pollution are complete

In 2017, in Phase I of the study, UB scientists worked with community members in southeastern Grand Island, the City of Tonawanda, the Town of Tonawanda, and North Buffalo to collect soil samples from neighborhoods that may have been in the path of emissions from the Tonawanda Coke plant. Sampling was done, where possible, in an evenly distributed grid, with the goal of screening for pollutants.

Maps based on Phase I results from about 190 soil samples were developed, reviewed by DEC and EPA, released to elected officials, and shared with the public at a community meeting in January 2019.

From Phase I maps, a set of three regions of interest was identified where Phase I soil samples contained higher levels of selected pollutants than in the directly surrounding region. Working with the community, scientists took about 95 additional soil samples that were later used in mapping, focusing on areas in and around the regions of interest, and on schools and churches.

Next, the study team developed numerous maps modeling the estimated distributions of various pollutants across the study region.

Key maps focusing on the estimated distribution of pollutants at 6 inches below the surface of the ground were shared at a community meeting Nov. 21, 2019. These maps were created using geographic modeling that incorporated soil testing results from soil samples taken in Phase I and Phase II of the study.

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 next step is to understand what fraction of the pollution found may have come from Tonawanda Coke.

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.

“The maps are useful because they guide us in understanding what region of the study area may have been impacted by pollution,” Gardella says. “If we have several soil samples in the same area with elevated levels of a pollutant, it creates a region on the map where there’s a higher probability of soil contamination. The maps are a way to better define the area where there may be a problem. In the past, we’ve seen too many examples of clean-ups that ended at property lines, when we know contamination can extend across property lines.

“The purpose of this study, in line with the judge’s order, is to understand the impact of the Tonawanda Coke plant’s emissions on soil. The maps highlight areas where some pollution was found, but we don’t know what fraction of that pollution is due to Tonawanda Coke, or the Huntley Plant or truck traffic or other things. We’re researching that problem now.”

The maps provide insight into geographic areas that may be impacted by pollution without highlighting soil testing results for specific addresses.

Soil sampling was conducted with the permission of property owners, who received a copy of lab results for their soil samples. However, data from individual properties cannot be released publicly because it is protected by confidentiality agreements that enabled scientists and community partners to gain access to properties to collect soil samples. The study team cannot violate these confidentiality agreements.

As such, the maps do not show individual data points, but instead have contours modeling the generalized, estimated distribution of pollutants in communities as determined using interpolation.

Scientists decided to focus on soil samples taken from 6 inches below ground after analyzing findings from numerous samples taken at both 6- and 2-inch depths. With very few exceptions, the 6-inch samples contained higher levels of selected pollutants that may be associated with Tonawanda Coke than the 2-inch samples. In addition, many 6-inch samples contained indicators of the historic impact of pollution, such as quantities of pesticides that have been phased out, that were not present at the 2-inch level.

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 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 provided a more complete picture of this impact than sampling at shallower depths.

A number of soil samples contained concentrations of certain contaminants that exceeded the EPA or DEC’s SCOs. See the last section of this fact sheet for information on health concerns.

Studying whether pollutants originated from Tonawanda Coke

Two scientists in the laboratory examining a sample.

University at Buffalo PhD candidate Kaitlin Ordiway (left) prepares to run a sample in a secondary ion mass spectrometer (SIMS). The SIMS can detect targeted compounds in chemical samples extracted from soil. UB chemistry professor Joseph Gardella (right) is leading the Tonawanda Coke Soil Study. Credit: Douglas Levere / University at Buffalo

Because pollutants have many possible origins, the presence of chemicals alone is not evidence that they originated at Tonawanda Coke. PAHs, for example, are associated with the production of foundry coke but also with a variety of other industrial and combustion processes. Grilling, bonfires, car and truck exhaust, and cigarette smoke all produce PAHs.

Moving forward, scientists at UB and SUNY Fredonia will use advanced analytical and statistical techniques to study whether certain pollutants found in the soil — such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and arsenic — may have originated from the Tonawanda Coke plant.  

This process is called source apportionment. It will take into account a variety of factors, such as geography, prevailing winds, and a comparison of the chemical make-up of pollutants found in soil and samples collected from the Tonawanda Coke plant. As part of Tonawanda Coke’s federal sentence, the company was ordered to provide the soil study with soil samples 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 nearby soil pollution originated from Tonawanda Coke.

Final results from the study are expected to be released in 2020, after the soil study team has completed its analysis.

Community members with questions about the study can contact Joseph Gardella Jr. at tcsoilstudyquestions@gmail.com.

Other outcomes of the study

Though the purpose of the study is to investigate how pollution from the Tonawanda Coke plant may have impacted soil in Western New York, soil testing conducted as part of the study has revealed the presence of pollutants that are not thought to be related to Tonawanda Coke. Noteworthy examples include:

  • Grand Island schools: Elevated levels of arsenic were detected in soil around a playground at Charlotte Sidway Elementary, part of the Grand Island Central School District. In addition, elevated levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and arsenic were detected at William Kaegebein Elementary in soil on the edge of a parking lot. In both cases, the chemicals detected were localized, meaning that they were found only in one area, as opposed to across school grounds. The soil study team reported the findings to the school district, which notified the New York State Department of Health and issued a message to the community in December 2018 outlining actions taken. Gardella also gave a public presentation on soil testing results at Grand Island schools at a December 2018 school board meeting.

Possible health impacts

It is important to note that the discovery of contaminants in the soil does not necessarily mean that the chemicals identified pose an immediate danger to the public. Within the study area, concentrations of contaminants discovered were generally below the DEC’s residential SCOs.

However, a number of soil samples contained concentrations of certain contaminants that exceeded the EPA or DEC’s soil cleanup objectives (SCOs). (An SCO is the EPA or DEC’s guideline for the maximum level of a chemical that should be found in soil after a successful cleanup.)

Because health effects of environmental exposure to chemicals are dependent not only on the concentrations of pollutants found in soil, but also on the potential for exposure to the chemicals and a wide range of other factors, the soil study team cannot comment on specific health risks related to soil study findings. Factors that can impact health risks include, but are not limited to, people’s age and health, and how often people come into contact with contaminated soil and under what conditions.

Soil samples are collected with the permission of property owners, who are provided with information from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on general health risks associated with chemicals found on their properties, and whom to contact if they have concerns.

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