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The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), working with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), is investigating equipment failure at the Tonawanda Coke Corporation facility outside Buffalo, N.Y., that on March 31 triggered an emergency flare to prevent the release of potentially harmful gas. The coke oven gas, which is generated when coal is heated at high temperatures, contains benzene, ammonia and other hazardous pollutants. Excessive exposure to benzene is a known cause of cancer.
On March 31, the Tonawanda Coke Corporation informed EPA and DEC 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 immediately switched to the back-up exhauster, but it also failed. The plant’s third exhauster was already out of service. Because the exhausters were not available, the company flared the raw coke oven gas generated at the facility’s battery of coke ovens through a small stack and into the air. Tonawanda Coke has since taken steps to repair the malfunctioning equipment, and plant is slowly returning to normal operations. Residents may notice black smoke emanating from a small plant stack as this process progresses.
“EPA is concerned that this incident appears to be a repeat instance of equipment failure at the Tonawanda facility,” said EPA regional administrator Judith Enck. “This situation speaks to the critical need for facilities to have properly functioning backup systems in place and working. People living and working in the area deserve to feel confident that this facility is properly operated and maintained and is not causing risks to their health.”
DEC representatives immediately responded to the scene to investigate the nature of the release, make sure appropriate safety measures were in place and are continuing to monitor the situation. EPA is working with the state to determine whether any federal or state environmental laws were violated.
“Our staff is committed to taking the necessary measures to reducing emissions from this plant,” said DEC commissioner Pete Grannis. “We will continue to monitor the Tonawanda facility and work with our EPA partners to protect air quality in the community.”
Earlier this year, EPA and DEC issued several enforcement actions to Tonawanda Coke Corporation for numerous environmental violations.
For more information on EPA’s previous involvement at the Tonawanda Coke Corporation’s facility, visit http://www.epa.gov/region02/capp/tonawanda.html