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Message From Superintendent

Dear Grand Island Central School District Community,

As you may already know, Tonawanda Coke Corporation (“TCC”) was convicted in 2013 in Federal Court of breaking serious environmental laws. As part of the sentence, TCC was required to fund a soil study to examine how pollution from the Tonawanda Coke Corp. plant may have impacted soil in surrounding communities. The study is being conducted by faculty, research staff, and students from the University at Buffalo (UB) Department of Chemistry, led by Professor Joseph Gardella, with a team that includes researchers from SUNY Fredonia and staff from the local nonprofit Citizen Science Community Resources.  

As a school district, we agreed to participate in the study. We also asked UB to expand the scope to include all of our campuses, as well as Eco Island. UB proceeded to collect dozens of soil samples from these locations. Because the study goal was to evaluate possible historical contamination, the samples were collected about 6 inches below the ground surface. The purpose of this letter is to share the soil sample results with you.

We were pleased to learn that most of the 48 soil samples collected and analyzed from all of our school district property did not identify any significant issues. We did learn, however, there were two areas of concern that showed higher than normal readings of arsenic and one area also had higher than normal polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in the soil. The first location was in soil near the Charlotte Sidway playground and the second location was at Kaegebein Elementary in a patch of land located near the pedestrian bridge. We immediately invited Dr. Gardella to explain the results of the study. During that meeting, we learned all the soil samples near the Sidway playground were compiled together and analyzed. The analysis showed a higher than normal reading of arsenic. Additionally, a single soil sample taken at Kaegebein, near the pedestrian bridge, also showed higher readings of arsenic and PAHs. Dr. Gardella suggested that these results were high enough for the District to seek advice from health experts to determine if any follow up actions are needed.

Out of an overabundance of caution, we closed the playground at Sidway and the area of land at Kaegebein near the pedestrian bridge upon receiving this information. We asked Dr. Gardella’s team to take additional soil samples from those two areas and run another series of tests. These samples confirmed that only very limited areas exhibited elevated soil concentrations. We are also awaiting analysis of the woodchips that were used at the Sidway playground. We do know that railroad ties were once used to outline the perimeter of the playground. Those railroad ties were removed, from that playground, over 10 years ago. Furthermore, the District refreshes the woodchips in our playgrounds every two years utilizing playground safe woodchips. 

In addition, we shared the results of the soil sample analysis with the Erie County Department of Health. They referred us to the New York State Department of Health and in turn, we contacted Charlotte Bethoney from the NYS Department of Health and the Bureau of Toxins. Ms. Bethoney is the Region Chief in the Bureau of Environmental Exposure Investigation. She reviewed the results, and stated there is no cause for concern.

We also shared the results with Dr. Rosalind Schoof. Dr. Schoof is a board certified toxicologist with more than 30 years’ experience assessing human health effects and exposures from chemical substances. Dr. Schoof is an internationally recognized expert on the evaluation of arsenic and metals in the environment, as well as in the human diet, and on the bioavailability of metals from soil. Dr. Schoof agrees with Charlotte Bethoney that the reported arsenic and PAH concentrations do not present a cause for concern due to the limited potential for exposure.

I want to assure the school community that the safety and health of our students, staff and the surrounding community is our highest priority. We are relieved to learn that although limited areas of soil indicate higher than normal readings of arsenic or PAHs, the presence of these chemicals is not expected to have posed a problem for our students and members from the community.

Moving forward, we are holding a community forum on Monday, Dec. 17 at the high school auditorium at 6 p.m. We are inviting Dr. Gardella and his team to make a presentation to the community about the soil results. Additionally, we will discuss next steps concerning the Charlotte Sidway playground and the pedestrian bridge near Kaegebein Elementary.

If you have any questions regarding the soil results, I encourage you to attend the community forum or contact me at 773-8801. You may also email me at briangraham@gicsd.org. If you have any additional questions regarding health effects, please contact Charlotte Bethoney from the NYS Department of Health and the Bureau of Toxins. Her contact information is:

Charlotte M. Bethoney
Region Chief, Regions 1, 5, & 9
Bureau of Environmental Exposure Investigation
New York State Department of Health
Room 1739, Corning Tower, Empire State Plaza
Albany, New York 12237
Phone (518) 402-7860
Fax (518) 402-7859

Thank you for reviewing this information, and best wishes for the Holiday Season.    

Sincerely,

Brian Graham, Ed.D.
Superintendent of Schools