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 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. 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.

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. 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.

Invoices that were submitted by CSCR containing non-project expenses cannot be paid under the contract.

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.

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 will provide 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.

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.