Environmental priorities shift after Erie Coke shutdown

DEP testing in July found contaminants at Erie Coke site were generally within safe levels.

With the closure of the Erie Coke plant at the foot of East Avenue, community members concerned about air quality can breathe a little easier.

State regulators’ immediate focus has shifted from the plant’s violations of air pollution rules to removing hazardous waste and other materials from the plant, which closed on Dec. 19. Erie Coke’s first major deadline for hazardous waste removal will come in about two months.

“If I lived there, I would be much more comfortable now that the plant’s closed,” said Shaun Crawford, the technical advisor to Citizen Science Community Resources, a grassroots organization near Tonawanda, New York, where Erie Coke’s sister plant, Tonawanda Coke, shut down in 2018.

“The risk to the community is substantially lower now that the plant is closed, in my opinion,” he said.

The Erie Times-News spoke to Crawford and another expert who has also consulted with environmental groups in Tonawanda. Each said that groundwater and soil will be key areas to watch as the site cleanup at Erie Coke gets underway.

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection conducted limited groundwater and soil testing at Erie Coke in July and found that contaminants at the site were generally within safe levels, though leaders of the community group Hold Erie Coke Accountable say they would like to know more about the testing before they feel reassured.

Crawford, who has not been to the Erie Coke plant, said the shutdown provides an opportunity for a deeper look at the site and what contaminants might be present.

“Once it’s closed, things are more static and it’s easier to get a handle on what’s the contamination, where is it, where is it going and how fast,” Crawford said. “Once you know those kinds of questions, you can start planning your response.”

First steps

The DEP’s current focus is on removing wastewater and other waste materials from the Erie Coke site, said Tom Decker, the community relations coordinator for the DEP’s Northwest Regional Office.

“This is a long process and the DEP is overseeing it to ensure it is being done properly to safeguard the environment,” Decker said.

The DEP has asked Erie Coke to provide a Waste Inventory and Disposition Plan that includes a timeline for the disposal of all solid waste, a catalog of the types of waste and their location, volume and the proposed recycling or disposal facility that will receive them, according to a DEP inspection report that Decker provided.

The waste materials onsite “appear to be contained within the Erie Coke facility,” Decker said.

The Dec. 23 DEP inspection at the plant identified a number of containers and tanks containing waste, including tar, ammonia liquor and other byproducts of the coking process, according to the report.

“For the most part, the waste is semi-solid or liquid materials that remain in the bottom of the containers, often referred to as ‘still bottoms,’” Decker said.

Discussion of how to remediate the site has not taken place, he said. That will come later, and the remediation process will include a “site characterization to determine what, if any, soil or groundwater contamination is present,” he said.

Erie Coke has 90 days to remove hazardous waste from the site and one year to remove residual waste, or nonhazardous industrial waste.

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