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Tonawanda Coke soil study results released

Mike Desmond/WBFO

Tonawanda Coke may be closed and bankrupt, but their legacy remains. Scientists are trying to figure out what that legacy is.

While the property has become entangled in the federal government shutdown of the Environmental Protection Agency, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation is still on the grounds of the coke manufacturer, determining what is there and how dangerous is it.

Outside, a health study of the plant's effect on neighbors over time is continuing, led by well-known University at Buffalo Distinguished Chemistry Professor Joseph Gardella with SUNY Fredonia Professor of Chemistry Michael Milligan. Results of Phase 1 of a separate soil study were released Wednesday night at Tonawanda Middle/High School.

Gardella said the Phase 1 results indicated problems, especially chemicals like arsenic and the chemical group called Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons and especially in soil downwind from the plant. He reported many other areas were found to have no underground legacy of the coke plant.

"City of Tonawanda, Town of Tonawanda, Grand Island all are well-kept suburban areas. People keep up their yards. They bring in fresh soil," said Gardella, "and so if we didn't have a conservative number, we may have missed contamination that's been there for a long time. In Phase 2, that allows us to go back to only those areas that we think have a systematic problem."

Gardella said people whose property is free of chemicals receive that info in writing. He said when serious problems are found, that is reported to the property owner immediately.

Credit Mike Desmond / WBFO News
A large crowd gathered at Tonawanda Midle/High School to hear study results.

He said two immediate warnings were made to Grand Island Schools, where chemical problems were found. The school district is in the process of getting those resolved.

Tonawanda Town Supervisor Joe Emminger wants an independent review of the UB study. Emminger said he and some other Tonawandas public officials want to be certain the data is correct and want it evaluated by an unidentified third-party, one already hired.

"The main goal for all we elected officials is to protect the residents of the town," Emminger said. "Nobody has more environmental issues, unfortunately, than the Town of Tonawanda. There's Huntley, Tonawanda Coke, the Morgan Materials property that was shut down by the EPA last year. So we're very sensitive and, especially, I'm very sensitive, to protecting the rights of the residents."

Gardella said the supervisor won't say what the problem is with the UB work.

"What is the claim that the study is flawed? I mean, his statement to me is that he's been told that the study is flawed and I have no reason to believe that it's flawed," Gardella said. "He's asked us to do a third-party independent review and we believe that EPA and DEC, which have had nothing to do with the funding, nothing to do with the sampling, nothing to do with the analysis, are independent reviewers."

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.
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