CNHI News Service
TONAWANDA, N.Y. — A federal jury has returned a nationally-significant verdict against a local industrial plant that a citizens group insisted had been deceptively polluting the town's air and ground for years with toxic chemicals.
Tonawanda Coke Corp. and its environmental controls manager, Mark L. Kamholz, were found guilty on 14 of 19 criminal charges. The jury separately found Karnholz guilty of obstruction of justice for covering up the pollution during plant inspections.
The company, which produces the coal-based additive coke used in making steel, and Kamholz face possible fines of more than $200 million. Kamholz could be sentenced up to 75 years in prison.
Federal officials said it was only the second criminal prosecution under the national Clear Air Act. A slew of civil lawsuits remain active.
The trial lasted four weeks and featured damaging testimony from workers, including the plant manager, as well as residents. It took the jury only 5 1/2 hours to reach its sweeping verdict on Thursday. Sentencing is scheduled for July 15.
"It is a tremendous verdict for the United States and the community," said prosecutor Aaron Mango. "They put materials into the air that shouldn't have been in the air, and they dumped hazardous waste onto the ground that shouldn't have been on the ground."
U.S. Attorney William Hochul said that given the circumstances of the plant's violations, "it would be hard to imagine a more callous disregard for the health and well being of the citizens of this community."
Improbably, the plant is located only a few miles from the Love Canal neighborhood in Niagara Falls, N. Y., where contamination left by a chemical company forced the evacuation of scores of families in the late 1970s and resulted in the modern environmental movement to clean up hazardous sites.
The effort to stop the air and ground pollution at Tonawanda Coke started nearly a decade ago in the living rooms of residents living near the plant in this blue-collar suburb north of Buffalo. They were experiencing burning eyes and throats, leading to concerns about the foul odors and health risks.
Then, in 2005, an activist leader, Jackie James-Creedon, heightened the resistance to the plant by creating the Clean Air Coalition, which petitioned state and federal environmental agencies to get involved. They did, and investigations confirmed that unhealthy concentrations of the carcinogen benzene were being released into the air and toxic sluge into the ground.
In December of 2009, federal agents raided the plant, seizing 36 boxes of documents and taking photos of the plant's conditions, all of which were entered as proof of violations of federal environmental laws during the trial.
James-Creedon, the Erin Brokovich of the neighborhood crusade, said the jury's verdict not only celebrated the group's effort but also sent a powerful message to industrial plants throughout the nation that "the onus is on them" to operate within the law or face the consequences.
Erin Henry, director of the Clean Air Coalition, praised the U.S. Justice Department for pursuing criminal charges against Tonawanda Coke and its environmental officer, saying prosecutors "worked thier butts off to make this day possible. We now feel vindicated; we feel like government can work sometimes."
Details for this story were provided by the Tonawanda, N.Y., News.