Tonawanda News

March 5, 2014

DEC: Tonawanda Coke violated law in explosion

By Jessica Bagley
The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — The state Department of Environmental Conservation has issued two notices of violation to Tonawanda Coke following a fire and loud explosion that occurred at the River Road plant Jan. 31.

The notices, dated Feb. 26, inform owner J.D. Crane that the coal-burning plant violated two articles of New York environmental conservation law by failing to report the release of a hazardous substance and failing to maintain its equipment. 

The explosion at the River Road facility occurred at 11:51 a.m. Witnesses, some several miles away, said they heard a loud boom and saw a large black plume of smoke coming from the facility, which burns coal to produce coke — an ingredient in the steel-making process.

The blast was the result of over-pressurization of the coke oven gas system, which caused the manifold, which supplies gas for combustion in the ovens, to rupture, the agency’s investigation revealed. Coke oven gas was released and then ignited.

DEC Regional Engineer James Strickland’s letter to Crane and other plant officials stated that the plant must report the release of a hazardous substance to the state agency’s hotline within two hours if the release causes a fire, explosion, a breach of air or water quality standards or the release of gas that could cause an illness. 

The plant notified the National Response Center at 6:05 p.m. — more than six hours after the incident. The national center then notified the DEC at 6:10 p.m. 

“TCC did not report the release of hazardous substances ... including, but not limited to, benzene and naphthalene to the department’s Spill Hotline within two hours of the release,” the letter states. 

The DEC discovered the second violation while conducting its investigation on Feb. 5. Staff confirmed that a valve air line was frozen at the time of the explosion.

“The west flare is used to burn off excess coke oven gas and is critical in maintaining safe coke oven gas pressure in the system,” Regional Air Pollution Control Engineer Alfred Carlacci wrote.

Records indicated that Tonawanda Coke employees were aware that the flare required service, but did not complete the necessary maintenance. The east flare, which is used as a backup, was plugged with crystallized naphthalene, which prevented the flow of coke oven gas. 

The letter states that the plant violated state law by failing to maintain both flares. 

Both notices warn the violations carry monetary fines and other penalties. Regional Public Affairs Officer Megan Gollwitzer said Tuesday that the DEC is “continuing to investigate and evaluate enforcement options.” 

The Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration are also investigating the explosion. 

The plant initially claimed that no injuries occurred as a result of the blast, and classified the incident as “minor.” They turned away volunteer firefighters at the plant’s guardhouse, saying employees had extinguished the blaze and no one had been injured. 

But a week later, the Town of Tonawanda facility issued a second public 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 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. 

The plant has a contentious history. Last year, the foundry and its environmental manager, Mark Kamholz, were convicted of violating federal environmental pollution laws. They are scheduled to be sentenced in March, and the charges carry a maximum sentence of 75 years in prison for Kamholz and fines in excess of $200 million for the business.

The Occupational and Safety Health Administration has also fined the plant for worker injuries and violations in the past.

Contact reporter Jessica Bagley at 693-1000 ext. 4150, or follow her on Twitter @JessicaLBagley.