You must follow environmental law. That’s the clear message that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) have sent to the Tonawanda Coke Corporation (TCC) over the past two months in a series of enforcement actions that order the company to maintain and operate its coke manufacturing facility in a manner that no longer violates federal and state environmental laws. In an effort to keep the Tonawanda community fully informed, EPA is sharing information about its ongoing multi-faceted investigation of this facility. The company violated the Clean Air Act by polluting the air with uncontrolled releases of ammonia and benzene, failing to conduct required annual maintenance inspections of emission controls and proper maintenance and operations, and failing to complete multiple required reports. Exposure to ammonia, benzene and other hazardous pollutants can significantly harm human health, and excessive exposure to benzene is a known cause of cancer.
EPA is also insisting that TCC take immediate steps to meet the requirements of the New York State air pollution plan. The company violated the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act in the improper handling of its coal tar sludge, a hazardous waste. TCC also violated the Clean Water Act by allowing pipes and storage tanks to significantly degrade and leak, and by failing to provide adequate containment of polluted stormwater runoff, resulting in illegal discharges of polluted wastewater through storm sewers that lead to the Niagara River. EPA is working in close coordination with NYSDEC on the investigations of Tonawanda Coke’s operations and efforts to bring the company into compliance with environmental laws.
“EPA has ratcheted up its ongoing investigation aimed at protecting people’s health and thus far, we have uncovered a long list of environmental violations at Tonawanda Coke,” said Judith Enck, EPA Regional Administrator. “We continue to examine every aspect of the facility’s operations to make sure we have the information to reduce the pollution from the facility. For the sake of those who live and work near this facility, EPA is doing everything in its power to put an end to Tonawanda Coke’s lax environmental practices.”
“Working cooperatively, state and federal agencies have focused on making tangible changes that will benefit the Tonawanda community,“ NYSDEC Commissioner Pete Grannis said. “But there is more to be done and our department will continue to evaluate all of its technical and legal options for reducing emissions from the plant in order to protect those who live and work in the area.”
In 2009, EPA and NYSDEC conducted a comprehensive series of inspections of the Tonawanda Coke facility to determine its compliance with federal laws and regulations. As a result of this work, EPA found significant violations of the Clean Air Act by TCC. The coke facility failed to enclose and seal openings of three uncontrolled tar-intercepting sumps, five excess ammonia liquor storage tanks and a light oil storage tank. TCC failed to properly calibrate and use key monitoring equipment that could have detected gas leaks from a variety of sources. The company also failed to conduct monthly monitoring of all pumps and valves in benzene service for leaks, did not maintain schematics and diagrams of control equipment and any changes in design, and failed to submit regular reports describing defects, leaks, abnormalities and other key performance measures about its operations. TCC has not provided EPA with vital information about its operations, equipment in benzene service, and compliance methods. The company has failed to identify all of its benzene waste streams, making it difficult to track the amount of pollution generated at the facility. Furthermore, TCC has not provided refresher training to its operating personnel, kept proper records or submitted appropriate notifications about leaks, spills and other potential mishaps at its facility.
These investigations continue and as part of them, EPA is requiring the company to provide information about its processes and to conduct testing related to air pollution from the facility. This testing will give EPA and NYSDEC vital information needed to evaluate the facility’s compliance with environmental laws because it will be able to determine whether emissions from the facility are high enough to be controlled under the Clean Air Act as a ”major source” of hazardous air pollutants. This would mean that the company would have to meet additional requirements above those that EPA has so far compelled it to meet.
EPA and NYSDEC have put TCC on notice that it violated environmental requirements found in New York State’s regulations governing coke ovens by not having the proper air pollution control technology on parts of its facility known as quench towers. Specifically, it was required to have equipment called baffles, which are wooden slats that are installed in the quench towers at an angle to trap particulates and stop them from being carried out of the quench tower with the rising plume of steam. Baffles are a low cost air pollution control device that force waste gas to change direction in order to make it easier to capture particulates and less likely to escape into the air.
EPA has also ordered TCC to stop mixing its tar sludge on coal piles on the ground instead of placing it on an impervious pad designed to prevent the hazardous waste from contaminating the soil, and to clean up the remains of two tar storage tanks that had burned in a 2007 fire, releasing hazardous waste tar residue to the surrounding soil.
EPA’s investigation of TCC uncovered inappropriate management of the facility’s hazardous waste tar sludge generated in the coke production process. Instead of mixing the sludge with coal utilizing appropriate safeguards, such as using a proper concrete lined and walled pad, the sludge was dumped directly on coal piles on the ground and mixed there before recycling it in the coke production process. Under EPA’s Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, TCC has an obligation to minimize releases of hazardous waste and to obtain a permit before disposing of it. During its investigation, TCC also admitted to EPA that it had abandoned the remains of two tar storage tanks that had burned in a fire in 2007 and released hazardous waste tar residue to the surrounding soil. EPA is ordering TCC to stop its illegal disposal of wastes and to remove the released tar residues, and any contaminated soils.
EPA also has ordered the company to make specific repairs or corrections to its connections of wastewater pipes and to immediately stop unpermitted discharges of its process and nonprocess wastewater. EPA found multiple leaks of tar, process water, and a highly corroded tank meant to contain a substance known as “liquor,” which is a by-product of the coke process and contains contaminants such as ammonia, cyanide and naphthalene. The Agency also found other areas that needed fixing to avoid potentially damaging spills and leaks. TCC must submit a description of the work that was done and a written certification that each of the items has been corrected. TCC must also amend its management practices plan, which is intended to control water pollution at the site. TCC must also install a flow meter for process wastewater in the correct location and conduct an audit to identify any cross connections between process and non-process wastewater.
Apart from these administrative orders, on December 23, 2009, TCC’s Environmental Control Manager was arrested on criminal charges filed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Western District of New York and the Department of Justice, Environmental Crimes Section, based on an investigation by EPA’s Office of Criminal Enforcement and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation that found he had failed to immediately notify the appropriate government agency as soon as he had knowledge of a release of coal tar sludge, a hazardous substance at the TCC facility. It was also alleged that the coal tar sludge was released as a result of a failed decommissioning of two storage tanks, and that the coal tar sludge was inadvertently ignited. The complaint also charged a violation of the Clean Air Act. The charges carry a maximum penalty of five years imprisonment, a fine of $50,000 per day of violation, or both. The defendant is presumed innocent and charges contained in the complaint are merely accusations unless and until proven guilty in a court of law; he was released on bond pending an April court date.
For more information about EPA’s actions at TCC and related legal documents, visit http://www.epa.gov/region02/capp/tonawanda.html.
For a Google Earth aerial view of the Tonawanda Coke facility: http://www.epa.gov/region2/kml/tonawanda_coke_corp.kml(Please note that you must have Google Earth installed on your computer to view the map. To download Google Earth, visit http://earth.google.com/download-earth.html.