The industry of coke production has been part of Western New York history for well over one hundred years. Coke is produced by heating coal at high temperature. The coke is then shipped to other manufacturers for use as fuel and as an additive in the steel-making industry. Harmful byproduct emissions from coke production include benzene, toluene, xylene, ammonia, naphthalene and tar vapors.

The Tonawanda Coke Corporation, a local coke producer, has been in the news recently because of a federal prosecution for violations of the Clean Air Act.   The Tonawanda Coke Corporation plant is located along the Niagara River about one mile north of Buffalo, New York. In 1978, the Tonawanda Coke Corporation purchased the 188 acre River Road site from Allied Chemical. (In 1917, Allied Chemical opened its coke plant as part of the Semet-Solvay Company.) The Tonawanda Coke plant exposed workers and neighboring residents to hazardous air emissions, including benzene, formaldehyde, carbon tetrachloride and other toxins. The plant discharged industrial wastewater containing cyanide, ammonia and naphthalene into the local sewer system and storm sewers that lead to the Niagara River. Improper handling of coal tar sludge also contaminated soil in the area.

The government’s investigation largely centered on the chemical benzene.  A variety of industries rely on this chemical to manufacture items we use in everyday life.  Benzene is a colorless, sweet smelling but highly flammable liquid.  Benzene is found in cigarettes, gasoline and printer toner. Benzene has been labeled by the EPA as a Class A known human carcinogen, which can have harmful effects on bone marrow and can lower red blood cell counts. This contaminant has been strongly linked to Acute Myelogenous Leukemia(AML) and aplastic anemia, as well as other forms of leukemia. In 2012, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) recognized a positive association between benzene and multiple myeloma.

In February 2013, The New York State Department of Health released its findings on cancer rates in the Tonawanda area. The study revealed elevations in total cancers and in lung and bladder cancer in both males and females. The rates of esophageal and oral/pharynx cancers were elevated among males, and the rate of uterine cancer and leukemia were elevated among females.

Locally, the greatest source of benzene in our air comes from  industrial emissions.  Tonawanda has the highest air concentrations of benzene in Western New York.   In 2004, citizens in the Ken-Ton area began to take air samples in their community.  Groups such as the Western New York Clean Air Coalition prompted state and  federal regulatory agencies to do further testing of the air in Tonawanda.

In 2007-2008, the New York State Department of  Environmental Protection conducted an air quality study which revealed that benzene emissions in Tonawanda were 85 times greater than the EPA guidelines. The report, released in 2009, reflected that 70% of the benzene emissions were from one source, Tonawanda Coke Corporation. Other plants in the Tonawanda industrial corridor, including DunlopDuPont, Sunoco, NOCO and the Huntley Plant were also found to emit benzene.

In 2009, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (NY DEC) conducted an inspection and evaluation of Tonawanda Coke.  The plant was  cited for violations of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the Resource Conservation & Recovery Act for coal piles and leaking tanks.

Due to stepped up enforcement of regulations of the Clean Air Act, an October 2011 New York DEC report showed a significant reduction of the concentration of benzene and other pollutants at two designated testing sites. In 2011, the EPA issued additional   orders to the Coke plant to comply with the Clean Water Act regarding cyanide limits and the Second Resource Conservation Recovery Act with respect to coal tar sludge.

Many workers are not aware of potential workplace hazards associated with benzene as a solvent, as an additive, and as a coke byproduct.  The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety Heath Administration (OSHA) has developed specific standards, regulations and references for industry workers whose jobs include exposure to this toxic substance. As the first line of defense, exposure to benzene can be controlled by limiting evaporation, preventing spills and employing correct work practices. Proper maintenance and regular inspection of manufacturing equipment is also essential to minimize accidental leaks. Engineering controls, such as hoods, canopies and proper ventilation in coordination with the use of personal protective equipment and respirators are necessary solutions for limiting the hazards of benzene in the  workplace.

In 2010, Tonawanda Coke Corporation was cited by OSHA for 14 serious violations of workplace health and safety standards. The deficiencies involved the plant’s respiratory protection program; the improper use of personal protective equipment; industrial hygiene; and coke oven operations. The OSHA citations carried proposed fines of $48,500.

In connection with these citations, the New York State regional OSHA Administrator stated, “One means of preventing hazards is for employers to establish effective comprehensive workplace safety and health programs that involve their employees in proactively evaluating, identifying and eliminating hazards.”

On March 29, 2013, The Tonawanda Coke Corporation was found guilty in Federal District Court of 14 of 19 felony charges. The charges against the Corporation were based on violations of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the Resource Conservation Recovery Act.  Sentencing is to take place in July, and the company could face possible fines of more than $200 million.  The plant’s environmental control manager was found guilty of obstruction of justice and 14 other charges, and he could be sentenced to up to 75 years in jail.

The case is one of only two criminal prosecutions nationwide involving the Clean Air Act.  All charges relate to the 2009 inspection of the facility.  Six of the charges centered on a bleeder valve that spewed coke oven gas containing benzene into the air. During the trial, there were some tense moments of testimony.  The plant manager testified about the adjustment of the valve just prior to government inspections in order to temporarily prevent the release of toxic gas. This revelation incriminated the company.

While it is clear that industry is a reality in the modern world, it is equally clear that companies must also take responsibility and comply with safety standards to protect their employees and surrounding communities from health risks associated with doing business with hazardous chemicals.