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EPA Requires Improvements at Coke Facility in Tonawanda, N.Y.

Release Date: 04/29/2010
Contact Information: Elias Rodriguez, (press) 212-637-3664, rodriguez.elias@epa.gov, Michael Basile, (public) 716-551-4410, basile.michael@epa.gov

(New York, N.Y.) The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has ordered the Tonawanda Coke Corporation (TCC) to find and fix deficiencies in the way that it operates its coke manufacturing facility in Tonawanda, New York. EPA is also requiring TCC to explain two incidents that took place at the facility in 2009 and 2010, apparently due to power and equipment failures. During the two incidents, coke oven gas was sent to a flare instead of being treated in the facility. Coke oven gas, which is generated when coal is heated at high temperatures, contains hydrogen sulfide, ammonia, sulfur dioxide and other regulated substances. Excessive exposure to ammonia and hydrogen sulfide can cause irritation to the eyes, nose or throat, difficulty breathing or respiratory injuries. Under the EPA order, the company must determine how and why the equipment failed, fix the problems and take steps to prevent them from happening again.

    In a separate action, TCC has been cited for allegedly violating the Clean Air Act by exceeding its emission limit for opacity, which is the amount of light obscured by particulate matter such as smoke, dust and ash. Today’s enforcement actions are one component of EPA’s comprehensive ongoing approach at TCC.
      “Our ongoing investigation of TCC, coupled with the recent equipment failures at the facility, highlight the importance of preparing for, preventing, and responding quickly to chemical releases in our communities,” said Judith Enck, EPA Regional Administrator. “This provision of the Clean Air Act is only used when there is serious risk of accidental releases because a facility is poorly operated. It is imperative that business and industry do their part to protect human health and the environment. TCC has a legal obligation to operate in compliance with environmental laws and to be prepared for incidents. The residents of the community and workers at the facility deserve nothing less.”
        The General Duty Clause of the Clean Air Act states that companies have a “general duty” to design and maintain safe facilities. They must take all necessary measures to prevent air releases of regulated substances and extremely hazardous substances. Facilities must also minimize the consequences of accidental releases. The law recognizes that owners and operators have primary responsibility in the prevention of chemical accidents. Owners and operators who have these substances at their facilities must adhere, at a minimum, to recognized industry standards and practices, as well as any government regulations.
          On March 31, 2010, the Tonawanda Coke Corporation informed EPA and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) that the electric motor powering an exhauster, a device that channels coke oven gas from the facility’s coke ovens to the by-products recovery area for treatment, had failed, causing the equipment to malfunction. The Tonawanda Coke Corporation switched to the back-up exhauster, but it also failed. Because the exhausters were not available, the company flared the raw coke oven gas from the facility’s battery of coke ovens. The company also reported that another exhauster failure had taken place due to a power failure on March 17, 2009. Tonawanda Coke has since taken some steps to repair the malfunctioning equipment.
            As these disclosures and other evidence indicate, the coke facility at Tonawanda has been poorly operated. Earlier this year, EPA and NYSDEC issued several enforcement actions to TCC for numerous environmental violations. 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. The company failed 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.
              TCC must investigate what caused the incidents, evaluate facility operations related to the incidents and report its findings to EPA for review. These activities must be conducted by a professional engineer, who is approved by EPA prior to beginning work. The facility assessment must include recommendations to fix whatever did not work during these incidents, improve the safety at the site, and detail the steps that can be taken to prevent future mishaps. Once EPA reviews and evaluates the report, TCC must document that the recommendations, repairs and improvements noted in the report are implemented at the facility.
                For more information about EPA’s actions at TCC, 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.)
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