Federal government seeks to make Tonawanda Coke pay cleanup costs - The Buffalo News

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Federal government seeks to make Tonawanda Coke pay cleanup costs

No one ever disputed that toxic coal tar sludge was dumped on the coal field at Tonawanda Coke or that the practice continued for decades.

Even the company acknowledged as much, although it claimed the dumping was perfectly legal.

A federal court jury disagreed and now the prosecutors who made the case against Tonawanda Coke want the company to fund a cleanup of the coal field.

They also want the coke-making company to finance a series of local projects that benefit the residents of the Town of Tonawanda.

Those two recommendations provide the first hint of what the federal government will ask the courts to demand of Tonawanda Coke when it is sentenced next month.

“I think remediating the coke field is a great component of the sentencing,” said Erin Heaney, executive director of the Clean Air Coalition of Western New York. “There’s been a lot of coal tar sludge dumped there, so remediation makes sense.”

The government’s complete list of sentencing recommendations will come later, but it offered a glimpse into what it intends to ask for in court papers opposing a defense request that the sentencing be delayed until later in the year.

Prosecutors would not elaborate on what’s in the court filing, but it’s clear the coal field is a priority.

They want Tonawanda Coke to “initiate an investigation as to the extent of contamination of the coal field and, if necessary, remediate the coal field to remove any benzene contaminated soil and ground water.”

Contamination of the coal field was at the heart of one of the charges the company was found guilty of during a four-week trial last year,

The trial ended with a jury finding Tonawanda Coke guilty on 14 of 19 criminal charges and Mark L. Kamholz, its environmental controls manager, guilty on 15 of 19 criminal charges.

The company and Kamholz face possible fines of more than $200 million, and Kamholz could be sentenced to up to 75 years in prison.

Chief U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny will determine the fines as part of his sentencing, and the federal government will ultimately decide how to use that money.

Prosecutors, in their filing Wednesday, said “the government will be requesting that the court impose certain community service obligations on defendant Tonawanda Coke to repair the harm caused by the defendants’ crimes.”

They said most, if not all, of that community service will be funding local projects that benefit the town.

It’s a recommendation that heeds the wishes of residents.

Over the past several months, dozens of people have put forth ideas on how to use the fines.

They range from new parkland along the Niagara River to a relocation fund for people who live near the River Road plant to a pollution-prevention initiative that helps local manufacturers reduce toxic emissions and waste.

The government’s initial recommendations are part of a court filing opposing Kamholz’s request for a delay in the Sept. 30 sentencing. Tonawanda Coke joined Kamholz in requesting a delay, but it’s not clear if the judge will grant the delay.

A lawyer for the Tonawanda Coke executive said the request is based on a misunderstanding over the pre-sentencing demands of the court. “As the trial demonstrated, this is no run-of-the-mill matter,” said Rodney O. Personius, Kamholz’s defense attorney.

“The parties need to ensure that the matters that are considered in the context of the sentencing have been thoroughly evaluated,” he said.

Prosecutors are opposed to Kamholz’s request and, in their response, said any delay would “be a further setback to the community to see that the ends of justice are served.”

Heaney agrees. “We’ve waited long enough,” she said. “The company has dragged this out for a long time, and it’s time for the judge to sentence Tonawanda Coke and Kamholz.”

email: pfairbanks@buffnews.com

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