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Tonawanda Community Air Quality Study

LATEST NEWS: On October 23, 2018, DEC completed the safe shutdown of operations at the Tonawanda Coke facility. The facility's extensive system of gas lines has been completely purged and all coke ovens are empty‎. DEC and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are on-site to assess environmental conditions and investigate contamination at the site. DEC will continue to provide information and regular updates to the public on the progress of the cleanup of the site.

Press Releases:

DEC Announces Complete Shutdown of Coke Oven Production at Tonawanda Coke Facility (October 16, 2018)

Shutdown Operations at Tonawanda Coke Facility Complete (October 23, 2018)

About the Tonawanda Study

From July 2007 through June 2008, DEC initiated a year-long community air quality monitoring study in the Town of Tonawanda (Erie County) to measure the concentration of air pollutants within the community and evaluate the potential risk to public health. The study community is an urban area and home to some of New York's largest industrial facilities. DEC continues air monitoring at two locations in the study community at Grand Island Boulevard (GIBI) and Brookside Terrace (BTRS). The results from these monitors are used to examine air quality and trends in air toxics in the community since the conclusion of the original study.

One air monitor, located on Grand Island Boulevard, is 1,500 feet northeast of the Tonawanda Coke Corporation (TCC) facility and near Interstates 190 and 290 and other industrial facilities. The second air monitor is in a residential neighborhood on Brookside Terrace West, 8,000 feet northeast of the facility. In 2009, the study documented high levels of benzene released from TCC's operation. The facility was ordered to make repairs and operational modifications to address the releases of this pollutant.

Major Findings of the Tonawanda Study

  • The results of the study provided a strong basis for further compliance monitoring and regulatory actions to reduce the risk associated with exposures to air pollution in the Tonawanda community.
  • Elevated concentrations of benzene and formaldehyde were found at the industrial monitor on Grand Island Boulevard. Higher daily concentrations of benzene were found when the wind came from the direction of the largest known point source of benzene, the TCC. The formaldehyde evaluation indicated that the measured concentrations were influenced by local facilities and mobile sources.
  • The annual average concentrations for six air toxics (1,3-butadiene, acetaldehyde, acrolein, benzene, carbon tetrachloride, and formaldehyde) exceeded their respective health-based DEC Annual Guideline Concentrations.
  • Observed benzene reductions were the result, in part, of operational modifications made by TCC in response to DEC's and EPA's inspections of the facility and subsequent federal and state enforcement actions against TCC, along with a reduction in overall production in the years following the study year.

Benzene Monitoring Update December 2018

In early 2018, TCC began to encounter operational problems with the coke oven batteries that caused opacity (dark smoke) violations from its waste heat stack. Benzene concentrations also increased at the Grand Island Boulevard monitoring location.

In July 2018, DEC supplemented the routine one-in-six-day benzene monitoring with a continuous instrument (Synspec) that provides 15-minute average benzene values at the Grand Island Boulevard monitoring station. DEC installed this instrument to continuously monitor ambient benzene concentrations to ensure that TCC was not emitting high concentrations of benzene into the community. Figure 1 presents the benzene concentrations from the Synspec monitor.

Figure 1. Continuous benzene concentrations measured at the Grand Island Boulevard monitoring station.
Figure 1. Continuous benzene concentrations measured at the Grand Island Boulevard monitoring station.

The continuous benzene concentrations are presented as 15-minute averages (blue line) and 24-hour averages (black line) since July 24, 2018. The red dash is the corresponding 24-hour SUMMA canister samples. This figure also includes a yellow box, which represents the shutdown date of TCC.

During the shutdown period (October 14-21, 2018), EPA used canisters to collect 18- to 24-hour samples to monitor for benzene at numerous locations in the community. EPA reported all results from this sampling as non-detect. One of sampled locations was at the Grand Island Boulevard monitoring station. The concentrations measured by DEC's continuous instrument during this period were all below the benzene reporting limit used by the EPA laboratory. This explains why EPA samples for benzene were reported as non-detect. During emergency sampling events, analytical reporting limits are usually set higher in anticipation of measuring elevated source-oriented concentrations.

Figure 2. Time-series benzene concentrations from July 2007 - November 10, 2018
Figure 2. Time-series benzene concentrations from July 2007 - November 10, 2018

Figure 3. A comparison between 2017 and 2018 benzene concentrations at the Tonawanda monitoring locations
Figure 3. A comparison between 2017 and 2018 benzene concentrations at the Tonawanda monitoring locations

Largely, the benzene concentrations increased during 2018 in comparison to 2017 annual concentrations at the Grand Island Boulevard monitor. There is no difference between the 2017 concentration and the 2018 concentration (through September 29, 2018) measured at the Brookside Terrace monitor. DEC expects the benzene concentrations will continue to decrease at the Tonawanda area monitors resulting from the closure of TCC.

Public health interpretations of measured air concentrations

Overall, the potential cancer risk estimate from benzene exposure continues to decrease in the community. In 2008, DEC estimated the lifetime cancer risk for benzene exposure at 75-in-one-million at the Grand Island Boulevard location. In 2017, DEC estimated the lifetime cancer risk for benzene exposure decreased to seven-in-one-million at this location. This estimated cancer risk is considered low by federal and state public health and environmental protection agencies. DEC expects the annual cancer risk estimate from benzene exposure to decrease further since TCC has shut down. The decrease in ambient air benzene concentrations after the shutdown is evident in Figure 1 and it is expected to remain in this range in the future.

All of the information from the original Tonawanda Community Air Quality Study conducted from July 2007 through June 2008, updates about the improvements observed in local air quality since the original study concluded, and information on the state/federal civil and criminal enforcement actions undertaken at TCC are available below.

Historical presentations and information

2018:

2016:

2013:

2011:

2009:

2008:

Links leaving the DEC Website:

Decreasing exposure to air pollutants in the Tonawanda community

  • The benzene concentrations found in the study varied greatly across the community. The highest concentration was found at the Grand Island Boulevard Industrial monitor adjacent to the industrial site. The benzene concentrations found at the Sheridan Park Water Tower (SPWT) and Beaver Island State Park (BISP) monitors, both in residential neighborhoods, were similar to outdoor air concentrations found in the New York City area. The Brookside Terrace Residential Site monitor, in a residential neighborhood, measured benzene concentrations slightly higher than concentrations found in the New York City area.
  • In 2008 and 2009, DEC increased compliance inspections of all air pollution sources within the study community and also inspected additional sources outside the study area. These inspections focused on known facilities releasing benzene and other air toxics.
  • In April 2009, EPA and DEC conducted a comprehensive compliance inspection of TCC. Civil enforcement actions were issued to TCC for violations of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. Through the enforcement actions, the agencies continued efforts to further reduce emissions from the TCC facility.
  • In December 2009, the US Attorney's Office for the Western District of NY led federal investigators on a raid of TCC and subsequently commenced a criminal action against TCC.
  • In March 2014, TCC was ordered to pay a $12.5 million penalty and make $12.2 million in community service payments for criminal and civil violations of the Clean Air Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. For a summary of the criminal actions, visit EPA's enforcement page (2014 Major Criminal Cases) under Links leaving DEC's website.

Questions about Emission Sources

NYS DEC
270 Michigan Avenue
Buffalo, NY 14203
(716) 851-7130
Email: region9@dec.ny.gov

Questions about the Tonawanda Study

NYS DEC
Division of Air Resources
625 Broadway
Albany, NY 12233
(518) 402-8402
Email: DAR.Web@dec.ny.gov


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