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Agreement in Tonawanda Coke case offers future benefits and fires a warning shot to other polluters

The agreement by Tonawanda Coke that has the company paying $2.75 million in civil penalties and millions more to reduce air pollution and enhance air and water quality, in addition to environmental projects, is the latest example and metaphorical smoke signal to other industries not to emit pollutants illegally.

Following years of reprehensible practices of spewing toxic chemicals into the air without regard to the people in the community, the company has faced strong judgment.

A couple of years ago, a federal jury found the Town of Tonawanda company and one of its executives guilty of polluting the air and ground at its River Road plant.

That was a significant event in a case believed to have been the biggest local environmental trial in years and only the second criminal prosecution nationally involving the Clean Air Act.

The settlement averts an anticipated civil lawsuit by environmental officials. That suit would have cited Tonawanda Coke’s benzene emissions and claimed its plant is a “major source” of hazardous air pollutants.

The latest action is enough to sting but not cost people their jobs. That’s an important balancing act.

In addition to the $2.7 million in penalties, the order to make nearly $8 million in improvements to the company’s River Road manufacturing plant offers the community assurances about operations going forward. That’s important because, as Judith A. Enck, regional administrator of the federal Environmental Protection Agency, observed, driving by the plant “you can see smoke coming, not only out of the smokestacks, but of the sides of the building …” No wonder she called the company an “environmental outlaw.”

The agreement appropriately calls for public input into the settlement and manner in which the $1 million in Environmental Benefit Projects money is used. Money used to restore or preserve a wetlands area – $357,000 – will go to Ducks Unlimited, an international wildlife and wetlands conservation group, for use in preserving or restoring a local wetland still yet to be determined.

Enck said the settlement would provide greater public health protections for the people of Western New York, and acknowledged the role of residents and their elected officials. In addition, she cited the Clean Air Coalition of Western New York and the Citizen Science Community Resources.

There is hardly a doubt as to the role strong citizen and grass-roots organizations played in putting an end to an egregious environmental crime.

Although this agreement must be approved by a federal judge, there is reason to be hopeful that the wheels of justice will continue to turn. It was U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny who called the company’s conduct “singularly inexcusable,” and as part of his sentencing in the criminal case, ordered it to pay $24 million.

Speaking volumes about the difficulties citizens have had to endure, spending on roughly half of that money, if upheld by an appeals court, would go toward a University at Buffalo public health study that would examine the effects coke oven gas emissions have had on the Tonawanda and Grand Island communities.

Such environmental injustice should happen never again.