Tonawanda Coke Soil Study

Update and Phase I Results: January 16, 2019

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 study after the company was convicted of violating the Clean Air Act and Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.

On Jan. 16, 2019, the study team held a community meeting to provide the public with an update on the study.

The team shared findings from Phase 1, including information on three geographic regions of interest (ROIs) that scientists are investigating more closely based on findings from soil samples taken in 2017. Additional soil samples were taken from in and around these ROIs in 2018 as part of Phase 2 of the study, as well as from schools, parks and churches.

The study’s next steps include using advanced analytical and statistical techniques — a process called source apportionment — to investigate what portion of pollutants found in soil may have originated from the Tonawanda Coke plant.

The following materials were shared with the community at the Jan. 16 meeting:

The Tonawanda Coke 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 scientists from UB and SUNY Fredonia — including Tammy Milillo, PhD, UB research assistant professor of chemistry, and Michael Milligan, PhD, SUNY Fredonia professor of chemistry, both of whom are experts in environmental chemistry and Kathryn Little, community organizer/project administrator — as well as community partners.

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 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?

Soil sampling is being conducted by UB researchers and community partners. 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, who 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 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.

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.

Twenty thousand flyers have been distributed door-to-door in the neighborhoods involved, alerting residents of opportunities to get their questions answered or opportunities engage with the research team.

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.

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.

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?

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.

At a community meeting in January 2019, the soil study team provided the public with an update on the study, including information on three geographic areas of interest that scientists are investigating more closely based on findings from soil samples taken in 2017.

What are the soil study’s findings so far?

The soil study held a community meeting in January 2019 to update the public on the progress of the study, including findings from soil sampling completed in 2017.

At the meeting, the study team shared information on three geographic areas of interest that researchers are investigating more closely based on findings from soil samples taken in 2017. Additional soil samples were taken in and around these areas in 2018, as well as from schools, parks and churches.

Scientists also shared maps showing estimated concentrations of selected contaminants in the study area. A fact sheet with additional information is available in the following news release: http://buffalo.edu/news/releases/2019/01/012.html.

The community meeting also included discussion of the study’s next steps. Moving forward, scientists will use advanced analytical and statistical techniques — a process called source apportionment — to investigate whether pollutants found in the soil may have originated from the Tonawanda Coke plant.

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 $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.

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.