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Air quality better around Tonawanda Coke, says DEC

The air coming off the Tonawanda Coke plant is considerably cleaner than it was. That was the message two state officials delivered to a public meeting in the Town of Tonawanda Tuesday night. Graphs and charts shown to the audience in the River Road Fire Company showed major drop-offs in the highly dangerous chemicals coming off the plant. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation continues to monitor air and ground quality following the 2013 criminal conviction of plant operators on multiple Clean Air Act violations.

The DEC operated a series of air monitoring stations during a probe of the plant, however, there are only two right now and each shows cleaner air. The plant is currently operating at a low production level, as demand for the coke the plant produces is low.

Regional Air Pollution Control Engineer Al Carlacci (car-lah-chee) says the plant is being forced to run properly.

"There's controls on the ammonia still emissions. There's controls on the pushing side of the coke oven for particulates. There's a shed with a baghouse. There's controls on excess coke oven gas emissions that in the past just emitted to atmosphere," Carlacci said. "Now they're flared and there's requirements to fix and repair all leaks."

Tom Gentile, Chief of the Air Toxics Section of the DEC's Air Resources Division, said the company is being forced to manage and maintain.

"The light oil removal, the pressure relief valve disabled, BP flare installed, enhanced leak detection and repair. I can't stress how important that is," said Gentile. "Most coke oven plants have a 10,000 parts per million enhanced repair limit. They've got to repair something when it exceeds 10,000 PPM. At Tonawanda Coke, it's 500 PPM to fix it. I'm thinking that's having a real big impact here."

In the past, residents were told repairing leaks was apparently not a priority. That showed up in pollution levels and a major explosion on the site.

Exactly how bad past air pollution was is not clear because records were not kept properly and the DEC and plant owners are still discussing what the measurements were.

"Over the years, they were required to submit emissions standards that summarize their emissions for that year," said Carlacci. "They pay Title 5 fees according to that. There's a toxic chemical release inventory. Those are forms that they had to fill out, summarizing all their emissions. They were inaccurate, so we're still going back and forth as to exactly what is the right number to report."

Mike Desmond is one of Western New York’s most experienced reporters, having spent nearly a half-century covering the region for newspapers, television stations and public radio. He has been with WBFO and its predecessor, WNED-AM, since 1988. As a reporter for WBFO, he has covered literally thousands of stories involving education, science, business, the environment and many other issues. Mike has been a long-time theater reviewer for a variety of publications and was formerly a part-time reporter for The New York Times.