Published September 28, 2018
How have pollutants emitted by the Tonawanda Coke Corp. affected the health and environment of communities in Western New York?
Two court-ordered studies that examine these questions are moving forward this fall, with the goal of providing people who live and work nearby with high-quality, research-based information on the impact of air pollution on their neighborhoods:
Tonawanda Coke Corp. produces foundry coke at a plant in the Town of Tonawanda. In 2013, the company was convicted of violating federal clean air and pollution control laws, and as part of its sentence, a federal judge ordered the firm to pay for the health and soil studies. Funding was released in 2016 after Tonawanda Coke Corp. lost its appeal in federal court.
“The UB investigators leading and contributing to these court-mandated studies are talented and experienced researchers,” says Ken Tramposch, senior associate vice president for research at UB. “By providing local communities with careful, independent investigations conducted by scientific experts, the results of the studies will help fill in crucial information gaps about the levels of pollutants and the general health of the citizens in the communities adjacent to the Tonawanda Coke plant.”
Additional updates on each of the studies:
The $711,000 Tonawanda Coke Soil Study investigates how pollution from the Tonawanda Coke Corp. has impacted the soil in surrounding communities, including Grand Island, the City of Tonawanda, the Town of Tonawanda and North Buffalo.
Scientists are testing soil from these areas for an array of chemicals, and will use advanced analytical techniques to research which pollutants may have originated from Tonawanda Coke.
“This court-ordered study intends to provide communities around the Tonawanda Coke plant with 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,” says Joseph Gardella Jr., SUNY Distinguished Professor of Chemistry, who is leading the scientific analysis.
“This knowledge is important because it is the first step in cleaning up the pollution,” Gardella says. “By identifying the severity and extent of the problem, the results can inform future efforts to remediate the environment.”
Multiple measures are in place to ensure the study meets high scientific standards.
Experts at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and New York State Department of Environmental Conservation have conducted multiple independent 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.
Soil sampling began in 2017, with UB researchers and members of the community collecting soil from more than 180 locations in neighborhoods around the Tonawanda Coke plant.
This fall, scientists are working with property owners to take at least 150 new samples from schools and other public places, as well as possible hotspots where higher levels of pollution may be found. This second phase of sampling — with more than 70 samples collected so far — will be used to refine results and provide a more detailed picture of how contaminants are distributed in the community.
The community has been engaged in the study since it began, with a community advisory committee convening regularly and many residents attending public meetings organized by the study team. Researchers have also gone door to door in neighborhoods, distributing more than 20,000 flyers about the study. Katie Little, soil study community organizer, and Tammy Milillo, UB research assistant professor of chemistry, have met with many local residents, answering questions and receiving feedback.
Community input and a two-way dialogue with the public are vital because local residents are the people who are affected the most by any contamination that may be found, says Gardella, who has about 40 years of experience studying the environmental impact of industrial pollutants.
Over the decades, his work has ranged from partnering with community organizations to map hazardous waste in Erie, Niagara and Cattaraugus counties, to testing soil at Hickory Woods, a South Buffalo subdivision built on land that the city developed. Residents there won a $7.2 million settlement after contaminants were discovered.
“Dr. Gardella cares about two things: the community he serves, and the sanctity of the data,” says Chuck Antolina, who was vice president and chair of the board of directors of the Hickory Woods Concerned Homeowner’s Association when Gardella was working in the neighborhood. “It took a really long time to settle the Hickory Woods issue, but all sides agreed that Dr. Gardella’s data was factual and without bias. This was never in question. We never could have won our case without his, and the university’s, dedication to the science.”
The $11.4 million Environmental Health Study for Western New York explores how air pollution, including emissions from the Tonawanda Coke plant, may have affected the health of people who live and work nearby. The study will track the health of participants over 10 years or more, while also taking their health history into account.
The study will use scientifically established approaches to understand the types of health problems community members are experiencing; how these conditions may be linked to exposure to chemicals found in coke oven emissions, such as benzene and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons; and how lifestyle factors like diet and exercise may help to lower the risk of environmentally associated disease.
“We began recruitment in late June, with a few thousand invitations mailed to households, and we have had well over 500 residents enrolled,” says Matthew Bonner, associate professor of epidemiology and environmental health, who is leading the research. “We are very encouraged by the positive feedback we have heard about the study from residents. The study findings will help to empower local communities with important new knowledge about their collective health and wellness. Information like this can help inform decision-making within these communities, helping residents and community leaders decide how to focus efforts aimed at improving community health.”
Enrollment is expected to increase significantly in coming weeks, with the mailing of more than 100,000 additional invitations this month.
Community participation is vital to the study’s success, Bonner says. A community advisory committee is helping to guide the research and will play a key role in deciding how results should be disseminated. Researchers have also attended public meetings where the study team has shared updates, answered questions and received feedback.
Multiple measures are in place to ensure the study produces useful, high-quality results that meet rigorous scientific standards. For example, a scientific advisory committee consisting of national experts in epidemiology and environmental health has reviewed the research plan and will continue providing feedback on study methodologies and analysis.
“As reviewed by the scientific advisory committee, the study team at the University at Buffalo is applying a rigorous, objective approach to address potential environmental health effects in the affected community,” says David Savitz, professor of epidemiology in the Brown University School of Public Health and chair of the health study’s scientific advisory committee.
“The study seeks to address longstanding questions posed by the community, as well as advance knowledge more generally regarding the health effects of the pollutants under investigation, and promises to make significant scientific and public health contributions," Savitz says.