By Jessica Bagley
The Tonawanda News
Tonawanda News — TOWN OF TONAWANDA — An explosion and small fire at the Tonawanda Coke facility shook the surrounding area Friday morning, but plant officials are insisting no one was injured and safety procedures worked correctly.
Witnesses said they heard a loud boom and saw a large black plume of smoke coming from the coal-burning facility at about 11:55 a.m.
"It shook our building," Adam Randazzo, who works on Cooper Avenue about a mile from the coke-burning plant, said. "We are right near the I-190 and the I-290, and we actually thought a car fell off and hit our building. Then we saw a huge, huge black plume of smoke ... it was pretty wild."
Ellwood and Kenmore fire departments reported to the plant, located at 3875 River Road in the Tonawanda. Plant officials told the fire chiefs that an explosion had occurred due to a buildup of pressure. Firemen did not reach the scene of the incident.
"The plant representative met us at the guard house, and we were satisfied that they didn't need our help," Ellwood Fire Chief Gary Stuff said.
After firefighters had left the scene, police suggested that the town's building department officials and Stuff meet with a plant representative to get more details. Later in the afternoon, Stuff and town officials met back at the plant.
"There was some sort of mechanical failure and there was a buildup of gases in one of their coke ovens. It was a pretty big explosion," Stuff said. "But a relief device let out the smoke, it did what it was supposed to do."
The explosion destroyed a brick wall, but the facility is reporting that no injuries occurred. Mike Durkin, of Tonawanda Coke, informed police that a small fire had occurred as a result of the explosion. Stuff said he wasn't aware of a fire, and if there was one, plant personnel extinguished it on their own.
Tonawanda Coke is investigating the cause of the gas buildup, Town of Tonawanda Police Capt. Joseph Carosi said in an email.
The plant, which produces coke — a material used in the steel-making process — has a contentious history. Last year, the plant and its environmental manager, Mark Kamholz, were convicted of violating federal environmental laws. They will 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.
The Occupational and Safety Health Administration has also fined the plant for worker injuries and violations.
The Clean Air Coalition, which has led the fight against the plant for almost 10 years, released a statement Friday calling on OSHA, the Environmental Protection Agency and the state Department of Environmental Conservation to complete an in-depth investigation of the explosion.
"We understand the company stated this was a 'minor explosion and a small fire' but past self reporting from the company has been inaccurate and has put workers and residents at risk," Rebecca Newberry said in the statement.
The coalition is asking that the agencies investigate the cause of the explosion, what toxins were released and what the workers were exposed to.
"The results of this investigation should be released to the community and workers as soon as possible," the statement reads.
It is not the first time a fire has been reported at the facility. In July 2008, a fire in a tank holding hazardous waste brought firefighters from several area companies to the site. There were no injuries in that incident.
Contact reporter Jessica Bagley at 693-1000 ext. 4150, or follow her on Twitter @JessicaLBagley.