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Calls grow for Tonawanda Coke to close

Chris Caya/WBFO News

Tonawanda Coke was back in federal court in Buffalo Tuesday for allegedly violating its consent decree with the Department of Justice which requires the company to comply with emission standards.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Aaron Mango, who handled the company's criminal trial in 2013, asked Judge William Skretny to shut down the company until it can comply with the law. 

"It's a fair request based on the case that we had which showed repeated, numerous, sustained violations for decades, releasing coke oven gas and known hazardous air pollutant into the air. That is now is continuing again and we can't have that," Mango said. 

Mango told the court the company is "forcing" residents to breath "poison gas." Skretny said he wants more information before deciding.

The company is also being criticized for its handling of a fire that broke out at its River Road plant Monday night. Grand Island Town Supervisor Nate McMurray said firefighters were blocked from entering the plant.

"I was there. There was truck after truck after truck lined up ready to go and help. Why do you think they wouldn't let them in?," asked McMurray. "I could see that thing glowing from the Grand Island Bridge. It doesn't look normal to me."

Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz said Tuesday based on an initial report from the Erie County Emergency Services department, Monday's fire was a true fire due to a power loss, failure of backup generators to be turned on, and gas build-up, and not a controlled burn, as stated. He said he is "very concerned and very distressed" about the incident and the county looking into whether the obstruction was criminal.

"When you have a company that certainly has not cared about the health and welfare of the people of this region for so long, and then to completely disregard the request from emergency responders when there was an active fire on their site, Tonawanda Coke needs to be closed. It's as simple as that," Poloncarz said.

City of Tonawanda mayor Rick Davis also called for the company to close "permanently." Rep. Brian Higgins wrote a letter to the EPA and DEC in late July, calling for "no leniency" for the company and urged them to use "every resource available to you to prosecute them to the fullest extent of the law." On Tuesday, he said Monday's incident "continues years of irresponsible actions."

The judge ordered the company's lawyers to submit a written plan by the close of business Tuesday on how the problems will be fixed immediately. Representatives from the company did not speak to reporters following Tuesday's court proceeding. Both sides are due back in court next Monday.

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