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EPA, NY Authorities Investigating Tonawanda Coke Incident

April 5, 2010
Equipment failure leads to discharge of toxic gas
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the New York State Dept. of Environmental Conservation are investigating a recent equipment failure at the Tonawanda Coke Corp. plant in Tonawanda, NY, near Buffalo. The company is a merchant supplier of coke. According to reports, an equipment malfunction on March 31 triggered an emergency flare to prevent the release of potentially harmful gas. The plant had already been the target of several “enforcement actions” from EPA and DEC for numerous environmental violations earlier this year. Coke oven gas is the byproduct of heating coal at high temperatures under pressure in order to produce a dense high-carbon product used for steelmaking. According to EPA, coke oven gas contains benzene, ammonia, and other hazardous pollutants, and excessive exposure to benzene is known to cause of cancer. On March 31, Tonawanda Coke informed EPA and DEC that an electric motor powering an exhauster had failed. (The exhauster directs coke oven gas to a by-products recovery area for treatment.) The failure caused the equipment malfunction. Tonawanda Coke immediately switched to a back-up exhauster, but it also failed. A third exhauster was out of service. Because it was unable to use the exhausters, the operators flared the raw coke oven gas through a small stack and into the air. EPA said the company has taken steps to repair the malfunctioning equipment, and the plant is slowly returning to normal operations. “EPA is concerned that this incident appears to be a repeat instance of equipment failure at the Tonawanda facility,” stated 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 investigated at the site, and is working with EPA to determine whether any federal or state environmental laws were violated.