After years of illegally discharging hundreds of tons of carcinogens into the air, Tonawanda Coke just outside of Buffalo, NY was sentenced on Wednesday to pay a $12.5 million fine to the Justice Department and pay for two environmental studies of the area affected by its pollution, with a price tag of $12.2 million.
Tonawanda Coke, which has operated for 30 years, produces a coal-based additive called coke that is used to make steel.
The 11 violations of the Clean Air Act and the 3 violations of the Resource Recovery and Conservation Act the company was found guilty of last April carried a maximum penalty of $295 million in fines and 75 years in prison for the coke plant’s manager.
The company’s environmental controls manager, Mark Kamholz, was sentenced to one year and one day in prison, 100 hours of community service and a $20,000 fine. Kamholz was found guilty of obstructing justice for covering up the pollution during plant inspections.
The Clean Air Act violations date from 2005 to 2009 during which time the plant regularly spewed benzene into the air to lower pressure in the coke oven gas line. The violations of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act date from 1998 to 2009, when the company mixed its coal tar sludge on the ground.
A local reporter at WIVB4 found mixed reactions from residents living near the plant as they left the courtroom after sentencing.
“It’s kind of mixed emotions. It’s a good step forward, but definitely not sufficient. We definitely would have liked to see a much higher fine and a much higher jail time, but I think it’s a good step forward,” Erin Heaney of the Clean Air Coalition of WNY told Lou Raguse, the reporter from WIVB News.
In 2005, local residents concerned for their health banded together to form the Clean Air Coalition and petitioned state and federal environmental agencies to investigate the plant’s operations. After confirming elevated levels of the benzene in the community, federal agents raided the plant in 2009.
A three-year health study of residents by the state Health Department and the Department of Environmental Conservation completed last fall found elevated rates of lung and bladder cancers in men and women as well as elevated esophageal cancer in men and uterine cancer in women.
In September, the group Environmental Advocates released a report claiming that budget cuts at New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation had cut staff by one-third and resulted in 75 percent fewer inspections of factories and power plants.
As North County Public Radio reported at the time, the group’s report found that inspections of power plants were down by 44 percent and inspection of potential water pollution sites were down by 74 percent. Enforcement actions against polluters were also found to be down by 24 percent..
Wednesday’s sentencing will not be Tonawanda Coke’s last appearance in court. The company faces at least 20 civil suits.