EPA, N.Y. Order Tonawanda Coke Corp. to Clean Up Multiple Issues

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) have sent a series of enforcement actions over the past two months to the Tonawanda Coke Corporation (TCC) that order the company to maintain and operate its coke manufacturing facility in a manner that no longer violates 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 (CAA) 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.

The company violated the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) 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 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.

“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. As a result of this work, EPA found significant CAA violations. 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. The company failed to:

  • properly calibrate and use key monitoring equipment that could have detected gas leaks
  • conduct monthly monitoring of all pumps and valves in benzene service for leaks,
  • maintain schematics and diagrams of control equipment and any changes in design,
  • submit regular reports describing defects, leaks, abnormalities and other key performance measures.

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 the agencies 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 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 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 under 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 RCRA, TCC must minimize releases of hazardous waste and 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 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 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 Dec. 23, 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 CAA violation. 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.

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