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Tonawanda Coke fined $12.5 million for pollution violations

WBFO News file photo

A federal judge has fined Tonawanda Coke $12.5 million dollars for violating the Clean Air Act the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.

U.S. District Judge William Skretny handed down the long-awaited sentence Wednesday in a proceeding that lasted several hours.

The plant's environmental controls manager Mark Kamholz was sentenced to one year and one day in jail and fined $20,000 for allowing the cancer causing agent benzene to be released into the environment and improper handling of hazardous sludge. When Kamholz is released his will serve 100 hours of community service in town of Tonawanda.

The company has been placed on five years probation and ordered to pay for two community service projects, at a cost not to exceed $12.2 million.

The community service projects will be in the form of two impact studies. They include a study on the effect coke gas has on people's health long-term, that will be completed by the University at Buffalo. The second will test the soil of properties neighboring Tonawanda Coke, that will be completed by Citizen Science Community Resources.

Credit Ashley Hirtzel / WBFO News
Assistant U.S. Attorney Aaron Mango and Senior Trial Attorney Rocky Piaggione handled the prosecution for the case.

During the hearing Judge Skretny said the sentence was not meant to be a death sentence for the plant, but more than a slap on the wrist. He said he hopes the punishment will deter other companies from violating environmental laws.

Tonawanda Coke faced up to $295 million in fines, but Judge Skretny warned before sentencing that the company was only capable of paying $25 million.

Prosecutors sought a sentence of three years, five months for Kamholz, but a judge decided on the shorter term. Last year's convictions of Kamholz and the company followed years of complaints from neighbors about black soot and high cancer rates.

On behalf of Kamholz attorney Rodney Personious turned to residents in the courtroom and apologized for the uncertainty Tonawanda Coke has caused them in regards to their future health.

Credit Ashley Hirtzel / WBFO News
U.S. Attorney Bill Hochul

U.S. Attorney Bill Hochul said the fine on Tonawanda Coke itself is the largest fine ever levied in an air pollution case involving a federal crime trial.

"For the citizens of western New York, Tonawanda, Grand Island, and frankly the citizens of the United States the defendants have now been held responsible and justice has been done," said Hochul.

In reaction to the sentencing verdict founder of Citizen Science Community Resources Jackie James-Creedon says she believes justice has been served. She says she's happy that the community will have their questions answered through the impact studies.

Credit Ashley Hirtzel / WBFO News
Jackie James-Creedon giving her emotional reaction.

"I think it sends a clear message to other companies not only in Tonawanda, but across the country that if you don't follow environmental laws, and you are that manager that's responsible to make sure that these laws are followed you can go to jail and you can be fined a significant amount of money," said James-Creedon.

Before the sentence was handed down, the CEO of Tonawanda Coke said the company accepts responsibility for its actions. While admitting mistakes, he said the company is making strides to improve. The River Road plant was convicted last March of releasing hundreds of tons of cancer causing benzene gas into the air through a leaking pressure relief valve.