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Judge finds Tonawanda Coke guilty of violating probation

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Federal judge William Skretny has set a Friday morning sentencing Tonawanda Coke after ruling the company violated a four-year-old probation agreement. The company admits it emitted more pollution, measured by opacity in the form of darker exhaust from the Tonawanda plant.  The U.S. Attorney's office moved against the company and Skretny, on Monday, found Tonawanda Coke guilty of violating the probation status.

Skretnry ordered both the government and lawyers for the company to provide possible sentences by 5 p.m. Wednesday. Tonawanda Coke lawyer Jeff Stravino says the company has been transparent throughout the process.

"We always agreed that there were opacity exceedences. We've self-disclosed them. We've worked cooperatively. We've provided unfettered access to the DEC, to the EPA, anyone else who ever requested it," Stravino said.

Skretny's choices range from minor punishment to closing the plant. The judge asked both sides to file papers suggesting what that punishment should be.

Some longtime opponents favor shutting it down while others say they want the plant kept operating on a very tight leash so it can continue to make payments to victims of decades of pollutants emitted over the Tonawandas and Grand Island.

"If he shuts them down, that closes a money source down. If he keeps them open and keeps them operating, but operating under certain standards and certain procedures, it allows them to operate, continue to make money, continue to pay off their debt that they owe this community," said Joyce Hogenkamp with the group Citizens United for Justice.

Grand Island Activist Tricia Palmeri asked residents to write letters to the judge about the plant's effects on them and their families.

"They have the opportunity to voice out the people are suffering life-changing events, diseases. This is their opportunity to say, 'My life has been changed.' They need to submit their writings, tell their stories. Submit it to the judge. This is their opportunity. Take action now. Speak for yourself. Speak for your family," urged Palmeri.

Tonwanda Coke has said even a temporary shutdown would be more than the company could afford because of the cost of starting up again.

Mike Desmond is one of Western New York’s most experienced reporters, having spent nearly a half-century covering the region for newspapers, television stations and public radio. He has been with WBFO and its predecessor, WNED-AM, since 1988. As a reporter for WBFO, he has covered literally thousands of stories involving education, science, business, the environment and many other issues. Mike has been a long-time theater reviewer for a variety of publications and was formerly a part-time reporter for The New York Times.
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