Tonawanda News

February 19, 2014

Council supports explosion probe

By Jessica Bagley
The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — The City of Tonawanda Common Council passed a resolution Tuesday night supporting the request for a full investigation of the Tonawanda Coke explosion to be completed.

“There was an explosion ... due to a failure of pressure release safety valves to properly disperse gases which accumulated in the exhaust house and were eventually ignited causing significant damage to the facility as well as potential injury to the health, safety and welfare of city residents,” the resolution states.

The explosion at the River Road facility occurred on Jan. 31. Witnesses said they heard a loud boom and saw a large black plume of smoke coming from the coal-burning facility.

Ellwood and Kenmore fire departments reported to the plant, located at 3875 River Road in the Town of Tonawanda. Plant officials told the fire chiefs that an explosion had occurred due to a buildup of pressure. Firefighters did not reach the scene of the incident.

In a statement released after the blast, Tonawanda Coke explained that cold weather led to the freezing of an air line and the blockage of a gas line — which caused the explosion. The plant also initially claimed that no injuries occurred as a result of the blast, and classified the incident as “minor.”

But a week later, the Town of Tonawanda facility issued a second statement and admitted that three workers were hurt. One of the workers suffered a possible first-degree burn on his face, but returned to work on the same day. The second worker who had his face covered with dust was sent to a medical facility for treatment, and another worker was blown to the ground by the blast, but didn’t require aid, the release stated.

Local politicians and environmental organizations have been pressing for a full probe to be completed, and for the results to be released to the public. The state Department of Environmental Conservation, the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration are all investigating the incident.

Mayor Rick Davis spoke Tuesday in support of the resolution.

“It means a lot that a body can come together behind a cause that is as important as this,” he said.

Activist Joyce Hogenkamp, who asked the council to pass the resolution, thanked the officials for their efforts.

“From what I hear, it has made a difference that so many elected officials have stepped up,” she said. 

The plant has been the subject of resident complaints for almost a decade. Last year, Tonawanda Coke and its environmental manager Mark Kamholz were found guilty of violating two environmental laws. They will be sentenced in March, and face more than $200 million in fines and 75 years in prison.

Also at Tuesday’s meeting:

• The council tabled resolutions on food truck rules and parking permits for those living on Young Street. They will be discussed and considered at a future meeting.

• The council passed a series of bond resolutions for capital improvements to the city and the ongoing sewer projected mandated by the DEC