In 1918, Donner Hanna Coke constructed a coke plant near the intersection of Abby and Mystic Streets in South Buffalo on 88 acres of land that was previously a hickory grove. This facility produced metallurgic coke, a vital material used in the steel making process, as well as other coke by-products, including various chemicals, coke oven gas and coal tar. Until it ceased production in 1982, Donner Hanna was, at one time, one of three coke oven operations in the Buffalo area. The others were Semet-Solvay, known as Tonawanda Coke since 1978, and the larger Coke Oven Division at Bethlehem Steel in Lackawanna.
Donner Hanna’s four coke oven batteries were designed and manufactured by Koppers, Inc. A battery is a large structure containing numerous coke ovens. At Donner Hanna, the number of ovens per battery varied between 15 and 50. Coke is produced by baking coal in an airless refractory oven. The baking process drives off the volatile content of the coal and leaves a residue of pure carbon, or coke. Coke is commonly used in the steel making process both as a fuel and as an additive.
Lipsitz, Ponterio & Comerford, LLC represents the family of one of the hundreds of workers who passed through the gates of Donner Hanna Coke. Mark was born in 1957 in Buffalo. He married at the age of eighteen. One year later, in 1976, he was hired to work at Donner Hanna Coke as a laborer. Mark was quite often assigned to work as a lid man for the “A” and “B” coke oven batteries. He was exposed to high levels of coke oven emissions until his employment at Donner Hanna Coke ended in 1982. In September 2008, Mark was diagnosed with lung cancer; and, one year later, in September 2009, he passed away. His exposure to coke oven emissions at Donner Hanna Coke caused his untimely death and deprived his family of his companionship and support.
Many years before Mark worked at Donner Hanna, a resident of the neighborhood where Donner Hanna Coke was located took legal action against the company. In Bove v. Donner Hanna Coke Corp., Antonia Bove, a homeowner and business proprietor who lived across the street from Donner Hanna, brought suit in the early 1930’s to stop the plant from operating, because of the massive amounts of pollution emitted. The court dismissed her case with the opinion that, since the area was industrialized before Mrs. Bove purchased her home, the smoke, fumes and other forms of pollution were a fact of life in the neighborhood that she must accept.
In the late 1980’s, the City of Buffalo established a program to build new subsidized housing and offer grants to buyers of older homes for renovations in the area around the former Donna Hanna facility, known as Hickory Woods. By the late 1990’s, it became clear that the neighborhood was contaminated with carcinogenic and otherwise hazardous industrial wastes, including coke waste, arsenic and lead. According to the New York State Cancer Registry, the zip code where Hickory Woods is located (14220) has 51 percent more instances of lung cancer than expected among men, and 42 percent more instances than expected among women. This neighborhood contains one of the highest rates of lung cancer in Western New York.
Coke oven emissions were proven to be cancer-causing as far back as the 1930’s. Laborers who worked on top of or alongside coke oven batteries are at an elevated risk for developing lung cancer and other respiratory cancers. Coke ovens also presented a risk for exposure to asbestos due to the asbestos-containing refractory and insulating materials used to maintain operations. Asbestos exposure can cause mesothelioma, asbestosis, lung cancer and other cancers.
The attorneys at Lipsitz, Ponterio & Comerford, LLC are working to assist Mark’s family in receiving the financial compensation they deserve. Fortunately, our society has abandoned the kind of thinking expressed by the court in Bove v. Donner Hanna Coke Corp., and we now have a better understanding of the need for a clean and healthy environment.