Niagara Gazette

Courts

March 19, 2014

Tonawanda Coke ordered to pay $12.5M in fines; official jailed

Niagara Gazette — BUFFALO — A federal judge ordered Tonawanda Coke to pay $12.5 million in fines and sentenced a senior plant employee to spend 366 days in prison on Wednesday, marking the culmination of the a landmark criminal environmental trial. 

"For years, Tonawanda Coke has operated in violation of its permits," said Chief U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny, who presided over the trial and sentenced the defendants. "The immediate effects of the crimes is not readily apparent or easily quantifiable ... but this community has suffered in unexplained medical illnesses, contaminated properties and unknown future effects." 

Last year, the River Road plant and its environmental compliance manager Mark Kamholz were convicted of violating the Clean Air Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act for releasing cancer-causing toxins into the air and dumping hazardous material on the ground. 

Kamholz, 66, who was additionally convicted of obstruction of justice, was ordered to pay a fine of $20,000 and complete 100 hours of community service in addition to his year-and-a-day prison sentence. He retired from the plant in December and will be allowed to voluntarily surrender to authorities at a date to be determined.

Wednesday's verdict closes a chapter in a decade-long fight against the plant, when residents began publicly campaigning due to medical problems and black soot covering their homes. After years of work and a 30-day trial, the jury delivered a guilty verdict, and community members immediately started pushing for a portion of the fine money to stay local. 

Skretny responded to those calls Wednesday and ordered the coal-burning plant to fund two community service projects as part of its five-year probation — a decision U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr. said is very rare. 

The plant will fund a 10-year, $11.4 million University at Buffalo epidemiological study that will allow residents and workers to meet with doctors and determine if the effects of Tonawanda Coke's crimes impacted their health. A $711,161 soil testing study proposed by environmental activist Jackie James-Creedon will also be funded.

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