Tonawanda Coke explosion continues dangerous trend

Explosion rattles homes and reignites fears

On February 4, 2014

A dishonest company, a deficit of oversight and a history of negligence conflated Friday into an explosive mix, culminating in a plume of smoke and fears, as homes and nerves were rattled.

Tonawanda Coke is disgracing local headlines once again as the explosion at the plant revealed that issues plaguing the company are far from over.

The problems this most recent transgression will pose for the troubled company is not the primary concern. The real issues lie in the effect it will have on the surrounding area.

Tonawanda Coke produces coke, a major fuel used in the manufacturing of steel. The product is typically made by 'baking' coal to remove impurities. The process involves high heats, combustible materials and yields dangerous pollutants that are typically captured by filters to prevent their release into the air.

The last step, which is required by legislation, is what Tonawanda Coke neglected to carry out, as the New York State's Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) discovered in March. Due to Tonawanda Coke's (in)actions, the company caused irreparable harm to the environment. In addition, the surrounding population's health was put in jeopardy and property values declined as stigmas (justifiably) rose.

Friday's explosion solidifies the company's reputation among a growing list of industrial environmental offenders nationally.

Following the DEC's investigation in March, the beleaguered company was found guilty of releasing benzene, a carcinogen that can cause cancer and other illnesses, at dangerous levels into the air, and its environmental manager, Mark Kamholz, guilty of obstructing justice.

According to prosecuting attorneys, he was misleading reporters about the company's environmental impact.

So when this company claims, right on schedule, that the explosion Friday was "minor," a skeptical perspective is not only warranted - it's necessary.

"There's been a history of this plant being dishonest," Rebecca Newberry of the Clean Air Coalition told The Spectrum. "We won't know the extent of this [damage] until a full inspection is released."

Over-pressurization led to a gas buildup triggering the explosion, according to a DEC press release.

This story smacks of tainted water in West Virginia. And just as Freedom Industries slyly 'updated' the actual amount of chemicals spilled from 5,000 gallons to 7,500 gallons to 10,000 gallons - so it's easy to imagine what this "minor" explosion will amount to following closer inspection.

The issue is that, until something sensational occurs - like the fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas - we as the stakeholders in every industrial venture fail to see through the veil erected between the public and our neighboring industrial sites.

This is not by accident.

Regulators and inspectors, and the regulatory laws behind them, are all that serve to protect the public from both "consistently bad actors" and the more routine negative externalities associated with industrial production.

What is needed now is a buildup of public attention and action, a shift in rhetoric away from deregulation and a healthy skepticism in regards to businesses and manufacturers that can so radically impact our environment.

Only when we see through the smoke and haze will we begin to appreciate the absolutely vital role industrial regulations play in our lives.

Tonawanda Coke needs to be inspected immediately and closed as soon as possible, before we face the repercussions of another "minor" incident.



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