Weekly Feature

2018-09-12 / Front Page

First responders blocked from investigating fire at Tonawanda Coke plant

Corporation argues fire was business as usual
by ALAN RIZZO Editor

When fire broke out bright enough at the Tonawanda Coke plant Sept. 3 to be seen from Grand Island, several residents called local fire companies, seeking to address what they believed was a large structure fire.

But when first responders arrived at the plant looking to gain entry and investigate, they were stopped by plant employees, according to Sheridan Park Fire Chief James Chatham, whose department was first on the scene at about 9 p.m.

“At the guard shack, I stopped to check in and find out what it was they had going, and they asked me why I was there and who called us,” said Chatham, who told the plant’s employees about the multiple fire calls his department had received. “They said, ‘Well we don’t need you; it’s normal operations.’”

Chatham said he asked to speak to a manager, who told one of his employees to move a high lift across the driveway to prevent access to the plant. Chatham called the behavior highly unusual, given that standard procedure for the report of a fire at the plant is to work with employees to determine the nature of a call that comes in from the public.

“I’ve never had any equipment placed in the pathway to directly impede any type of response,” said Chatham, who noted that he was eventually allowed in to observe the fire. “The coke oven had active fire on top of it, more so than normal, and there were fires down below, which would indicate a problem in my opinion. They were saying it was all normal, but they also had hose lines deployed off of fire hydrants that they had on site.”

Chatham said there was also confusion at the scene because the plant’s power had gone out, which controlled a system that removes gas from the coke oven. As a result, employees had to burn gas off to prevent the oven from over pressurizing.

In a statement issued just after 2 a.m. Sept. 4, Tonawanda Coke spokesman A.J. Verel argued that the fire seen by residents was a result of the company burning off or “flaring” gases that had built up, which was done in accordance with standard plant procedure and environmental regulations.

“The flaring process would have caused flames to emerge from the top of stack, potentially large enough to be seen from a distance in a clear night sky,” he wrote. “The fire department, while appreciated, responded to inaccurate calls of a structure fire, hampering personnel from their procedures, and prevented additional management crews from gaining access to the facility to assess the situation.”

Verel also noted that a preliminary investigation by Tonawanda Coke electricians and National Grid personnel indicated that a bird strike may have shorted the power line at the corporation’s electric substation and caused the power outage.

In a statement issued Sept. 4, Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz contended that a report put together by the Erie County Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Services points to a fire that “quickly grew outside of the coke ovens due to the gas buildup,” not the controlled burn described by the corporation.

The statement also indicated that the department would continue to update the county executive as more information became available, including whether any criminal charges could be logged against Tonawanda Coke or its employees under New York Penal Law 195.15 for “obstructing firefighting operations.”

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