Semet-Solvay (Tonawanda Coke)

In 1917, Allied Chemical opened its coke oven plant on River Road in Tonawanda, New York, as part of the Semet-Solvay Company. When Allied sold its Tonawanda plant in 1978, it became known as the Tonawanda Coke Corporation. The original Semet-Solvay battery was built in 1917 and contained sixty coke ovens. It was taken out of service in 1972. Battery #2 was put into operation in 1926 and it also contained sixty ovens. Battery #2 was taken out of service in 1961, dismantled and replaced with a Wilputte gun-fired, hairpin, cross-regenerative designed battery that also contains sixty ovens.

Asbestos insulation and asbestos cement were applied to the insides of coke ovens to prevent the brick on the inside of the ovens from deteriorating. The asbestos refractory materials were continuously applied and removed, because even though they were an effective insulation material, they deteriorated under consistent use of high heat. Pipes and bypass lines associated with the coke ovens were sealed with asbestos gaskets and covered in asbestos-containing pipe covering. The doors and many of the metal components associated with the ovens were coated with asbestos-containing fireproofing and rope insulation in an effort to contain as much heat as possible. Dust produced and inhaled during the application and removal of asbestos-containing materials throughout Semet-Solvay, exposed dozens of men who worked at this facility. Exposure to asbestos-containing materials can cause mesothelioma or lung cancer to develop years after initial exposure to asbestos dust and fibers.

The coke ovens at the Semet-Solvay Company, later known as the Tonawanda Coke Corporation, presented health risks for exposure to asbestos; but, those who worked on top of or alongside coke oven batteries are at a substantially increased risk for developing lung cancer and other cancers. Coke oven emissions are composed of gases and dust harmful to your lungs and skin.

Tonawanda Coke Corporation operated the coke manufacturing facility from 1978 until operations at the site were abandoned in October 2018, leaving behind a vast amount of toxic materials, including numerous coal/coke piles, drums and tanks with coal tar sludges, acids, bases, flammable liquids and potentially explosive materials.  All toxic waste, including asbestos-containing materials, are being mitigated, and historic piles of contaminated soil will be shipped for disposal to EPA-approved disposal facilities.  A portion of the site was designated by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation as a state superfund site.

In July of 2018, a cease-and-desist letter was delivered to the Tonawanda Coke plant.  It included a notice of intent to revoke Tonawanda Coke’s DEC Operating Permit, after a state Department of Environmental Conservation inspection of the facility found persistent and repeated violations of the plant’s DEC permit and environmental regulations.  Thus, the plant was ordered to shut down operations.  That order was based on a state inspection of the coke plant as a result of numerous complaints from residents who live near the River Road facility in the Town of Tonawanda.

On October 14, 2018, Tonawanda Coke Corporation suspended operations and initiated process shutdown to permanently close its facility.  The United States Environmental Protection Agency performed emergency response work at the site until March 20, 2020; at which time the NYDEC took over and continues its oversight of the removal and clean-up of the toxic wastes left behind at the former Tonawanda Coke site.

Suspicion regarding potential casual associations between coal tar products in general and cancer of the internal organs, including lung cancer, may have existed as far back as the 1890’s, but these suspicions were not actively investigated. By the 1950’s there was a reasonable degree of scientific and medical certainty that coke oven chargers were nearly three times more likely to die of a respiratory cancer than other industrial workers. In 1951, Kettering Laboratory of the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine’s Department of Preventive Medicine and Industrial Health approached Koppers Company Inc., Allied Chemical Company (now Honeywell) and other coke and steel companies about a proposed research project to study the carcinogenic properties of coal tar and gas tar, and to perform an experimental and epidemiological investigation of potential health hazards associated with coal tar.

The Kettering Study lasted approximately nine years. The purpose of this study was to understand the relationship between the chemical composition of various tars and tar fractions and their effects on the skin and internal organs (especially the lungs) of experimental animals. When Kettering published its preliminary report in 1960, Kettering detailed its success in producing a lung carcinoma in mice through the inhalation of a coal tar aerosol. Although the carcinoma differed from that experienced in humans, the results were deemed promising. The Kettering study also disclosed that the lidman was considered to be the most exposed job classification in the coke oven operation. It was confirmed that non-white coke plant workers experienced a higher incidence of lung cancer than white coke plant workers. This difference was attributed, at least in part, to the fact that non-white workers spent more time on the top-side of coke ovens.

The investigations commenced by the Kettering Laboratory came to a conclusion with a publication of the final report in 1961. Thereafter, the industry largely ignored health risk incident to working on or alongside coke oven batteries.

It was not until 1979 that the federal government acting through Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) established a final coke oven emissions standard.

In February 1984, the United States Environmental Protection Agency published the Final Report, “Carcinogen Assessment of Coke Oven Emissions.

If you or a loved one worked at any of the various coke oven operations around the area, including Bethlehem Steel, Donner Hanna, or Tonawanda Coke and if you are suffering from mesothelioma, lung or other cancers, please contact us to discuss a potential legal claim. Former coke oven workers, even if they smoked cigarettes, may have valuable claims that can be pursued in Court against companies responsible for the design, construction and maintenance of coke ovens. Our services include lawsuits against manufacturers and claims under the New York State Workers’ Compensation Law.



Coke Production: Environmental & Occupational Impacts

Deaths Associated with Tonawanda Coke

Cancer Risks from Coke Oven Emissions, Coal Tar & Coal Tar Pitch