On Thursday, scientists hosted a community meeting to update the public on the Tonawanda Coke Soil Study.
The purpose of the research, as ordered by a federal judge, is to investigate how pollution from the Tonawanda Coke plant across the river from Grand Island may have impacted soil in nearby communities.
“The purpose of this study, in line with the judge’s order, is to understand the impact of the Tonawanda Coke plant’s emissions on soil,” said Joseph Gardella Jr., Ph.D., SUNY Distinguished Professor of Chemistry at the University at Buffalo, who is leading the study.
According to the UB team, takeaways from the public meeting, which took place at Riverview Elementary School in the City of Tonawanda:
•Strong community involvement: The community has played a major role in the study since it began. Hundreds of local residents, as well as the Grand Island Central School District and Tonawanda City School District, have participated by having soil sampled from their properties, the UB scientists said. Many community members have attended public meetings organized by the study team, and about 25,000 flyers with information on the study were distributed door-to-door in neighborhoods. A community advisory committee met regularly during the study’s sampling phase, and committee members continue to be consulted as the research nears its conclusion.
•Maps modeling the estimated distribution of pollution complete: Scientists have completed maps modeling the estimated distributions of various pollutants at 6 inches below the surface of the ground. The maps, created using geographic modeling, are based on about 300 soil samples taken from homes, schools and other properties in 2017 and 2018.
“The maps highlight areas where some pollution was found, but we don’t know what fraction of that pollution is due to Tonawanda Coke, or the Huntley Plant or truck traffic or other things. We’re researching that problem now,” Gardella said.
It is important to note that soil contamination can vary significantly between properties and even within individual properties. As a result, homes, businesses and other properties located in contoured areas of the maps may have levels of contamination that are above or below the general estimated values indicated by the contours.
“The maps are useful because they guide us in understanding what region of the study area may have been impacted by pollution,” said Gardella before the meeting. “If we have several soil samples in the same area with elevated levels of a pollutant, it creates a region on the map where there’s a higher probability of soil contamination. The maps are a way to better define the area where there may be a problem. In the past, we’ve seen too many examples of clean-ups that ended at property lines, when we know contamination can extend across property lines.
The study’s next steps focus on understanding whether pollutants may have originated at Tonawanda Coke. With the maps complete, scientists at UB and SUNY Fredonia are moving forward with a process called source apportionment. This involves using advanced analytical and statistical techniques to study whether certain pollutants found in the soil, such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and arsenic, may have come from the Tonawanda Coke plant.