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Justice delivered in Tonawanda Coke case

The guilty verdicts handed down in the Tonawanda Coke case should serve as a warning to other manufacturers in Western New York when it comes to emitting pollutants.

After years of struggle and denial by the company, justice was delivered. And it was appropriately tough.

Tonawanda Coke now has the dubious distinction of being at the wrong end of a case that is believed to be the biggest local environmental trial in years and only the second criminal prosecution nationally involving the Clean Air Act. It involved a wide range of allegations.

As Judith A. Enck, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regional administrator, said, “The verdict against Tonawanda Coke Corporation and Mark L. Kamholz sends a strong message that companies and individuals can’t simply ignore environmental law and disregard people’s health.”

A federal jury, on strong testimony from workers, found the Town of Tonawanda company and one of its executives guilty of polluting the air and ground at its River Road plant.

The jury returned guilty verdicts on 14 of the 19 criminal charges against the company and 15 of the 19 charges against Kamholz, its environmental controls manager. The company and Kamholz face possible fines of more than $200 million. Kamholz could be sentenced to up to 75 years in prison.

A remarkable sentence for a remarkable case that has gripped this town and its people. U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr. called it a “… historic case on many levels.” He added: “In the end, this was all about Tonawanda Coke and Mark Kamholz putting profits ahead of people.”

Indeed, four weeks of testimony by more than 30 witnesses, many of them former and current company employees, told an incredible story about clean air violations and improper handling of hazardous waste that now seems surreal.

Many concerned citizens and environmental groups worked diligently to get this case to trial – the result of an investigation by the Criminal Investigation Division of the EPA and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Police.

But it was surely strong testimony from current and former employees that made the difference. Plant manager Patrick Cahill stood out as he gave what could be described as chilling accounts of a bleeder valve that spewed coke oven gas with benzene into the air – six of the 19 charges dealt with this valve.

He and others talked about the frequency and duration of the bleeder valve’s openings and Tonawanda Coke’s concern about inspectors finding out about its emissions.

“We can’t have that going off when they’re here,” Kamholz is reported to have told Cahill days before an April 2009 inspection.

Cahill also testified he overheard Kamholz tell state and federal inspectors that it was steam, not coke oven gas, emitting from the valve. When asked about Kamholz’s comments, Cahill said that he was mad.

So are many others.