Tonawanda residents suspect Superfund site is contaminating their neighborhood


TONAWANDA, N.Y. (WIVB) – When homeowner Linda Freer reported a sinkhole in the middle of her street that had become an inconvenience for her and other drivers, little did she know what that sinkhole would reveal.

At the bottom of the 11’ deep hole on Carney Street, Tonawanda officials found coal tar, a toxic byproduct of coal gasification, a production technique used about 100 years ago.

City officials suspect the tar has leaked underground from a an old gasification plant about a block away, and they discovered it as a contractor was digging out a damaged sewer line, in the hole, and sent a camera down to inspect the sewer.

Public Works Superintendent Joe Warthling said when workers brought the camera back up, it was covered in coal tar. “The company was going to dig it out and repair the lines. When we found that on the camera then it is an environmental project. That is when we contacted the DEC.”

Tonawanda Mayor Rick Davis keeps a sample of the coal tar in a jar on his desk at City Hall, “In this whole area, we have evidence of coal tar contamination from the old gasworks site.”

That old gasworks project is a Superfund site, the state Department of Environmental Conservation has been monitoring for more than 20 years.

It’s the former Gastown Manufactured Gas Plant (MGP), and the project is now the responsibility of National Fuel, but Davis said getting the coal tar out of the city’s sewers is on the DEC.

“It is the responsibility of the DEC because National Fuel is responsible for ultimately the cleanup of the entire gasworks site and any contamination that may have been caused.”

Linda Freer said she is the one who initially called in the sinkhole, and now the thought of coal tar getting into the sewers, and possibly backing up into her basement, is frightening.

“We could have a sewer line break and seep into our house. We don’t know, it could create more problems. We have to get this done now because it could get worse.”

The sinkhole is also within 100 yards of Tonawanda Creek. A fact sheet from the DEC indicates groundwater has carried contamination from the Gastown site in the direction of the creek, and the Carney Street neighborhood.

City officials are still waiting to hear back from the DEC, to see how they plan to attack the coal tar in the sewers. Calls to the office in Albany have, so far, not been returned.

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