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Graphic letters to judge pin residents’ illnesses on Tonawanda Coke

As the Tonawanda Coke court case moves to the sentencing phase, residents suffering illness in the affected areas had their say to the judge in personal stories of sickness and loss.

A portrait of environmental disaster emerges from more than 100 impact statements sent to federal prosecutors and Chief U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny as he weighs fines on the company and sentencing for Mark L. Kamholz, its environmental controls manager.

The letters frequently reference rare conditions more often found in obscure medical journals: Polycythemia vera, chronic myelogenous leukemia, plasmacytoma, gliosarcoma.

But those conditions were written about – sometimes in excruciating detail – by people who say their diseases, diagnoses and treatments were caused by Tonawanda Coke, which was found guilty in March of violating the Clean Air Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act for intentionally spewing the carcinogen benzene into the air.

Residents, in the nearly 200 pages of letters, recount years of washing black soot off cars, lawn furniture and siding. Letters came from the Town and City of Tonawanda, Grand Island, Kenmore and Buffalo. They came from residents, business owners and elected officials. They recount ailments stretching back decades.

The black soot and noxious odors were a constant presence for former City of Tonawanda Police Chief John F. Ivancic, who has lived in the affected area since 1994. He retired from the department in June after being diagnosed in February with a rare type of brain tumor – gliosarcoma.

“No one can tell me how long I can survive with this, and no one can predict the future, but without this deadly disease, retirement would not have been a consideration at this time,” Ivancic wrote.

A woman recalls developing chronic myelogenous leukemia in the late 1980s as a 12-year-old girl in Kenmore and being taken to Women and Children’s Hospital of Buffalo for her first of many bone marrow aspirations.

“I remember one tear falling down my cheek as I looked at my parents, all of us helpless and at the mercy of medical personnel,” wrote Heather L. Buck, who now lives in Punta Gorda, Fla.

Research into the link between benzene and leukemia led her father to attribute the illness to emissions from nearby Tonawanda Coke.

“The fumes would come in the windows on hot summer nights, and most every morning our car was covered with grit,” wrote her father, David E. Brown, who now lives in Lockport.

Jackie James Creedon, founder of the Tonawanda Community Fund, echoed that same experience.

“We often had to close our windows to escape the smell and many times fell ill because of it,” she wrote.

Thoughts considered

The letters may affect Skretny’s decision on how and where millions of dollars in fines are spent. Federal prosecutors recommended that Skretny levy a fine of $57 million, with most, about $44 million, classified as a criminal fine. A status conference is scheduled for next month where Skretny may set a date for sentencing or hearings.

Creedon is pushing for a Community Wellness Center to improve residents’ wellbeing and a comprehensive environmental assessment of the contaminated area. Prosecutors last Monday suggested an $11 million long-term study by the University at Buffalo into the public health impact of the company’s criminal activity. But above all, writers – including Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, who represents the area – said they want fines to be substantial and stay local.

Victims were asked to address three issues: the impact the crime or defendants’ conduct had on them and their family, thoughts on the type of sentence the defendants should receive and anything else the judge should know.

The letters – submitted over the summer until Sept. 1 – were made public as part of sentencing memorandums prosecutors and defense attorneys submitted to Skretny. Some are typed, others – such as Donna M. Hennessy’s – are handwritten with flashes of anger.

“I was a healthy woman until this happened,” she wrote of her myelofibrosis, a severe bone marrow disorder and form of leukemia. “How dare Tonawanda Coke do this to me and my family.”

Personal stories

Often lost in the trial’s technical jargon of quench towers and baffles were these individual stories of pain and suffering, according to local environmental activists.

“We need to connect why those technical things they did wrong matter, and that’s what impact statements do,” said Rebecca Newberry of the Clean Air Coalition of Western New York, which helped organize residents.

Federal prosecutors said they’re confident the letters will play an important role in Skretny’s determination.

“When I read those letters, I found them to be very moving, very powerful and among some of the most compelling stories that I have been privileged to hear in my over 26 years as a prosecutor,” said U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr.

Tonawanda Coke has its supporters, too. Letters seeking leniency for the company were sent by a current employee and suppliers who say they may go out of business if Tonawanda Coke takes a big hit.

“Imposing an excessive fine would penalize far more than the corporation,” a business owner wrote. “Employees, vendors and customers would suffer, as cost-cutting moves and higher prices to customers would almost definitely occur.”

Some letter writers were cautious about attributing their health problems directly to Tonawanda Coke, noting environmental, genetic and lifestyle factors all play a role. But they’re left with a nagging worry about the present and future.

“While I realize these health issues can be caused by an array of factors, my family lives with the questioning and stress that the illegal pollutants from Tonawanda Coke may have been crucial triggers to the children’s health and growth issues,” a Grand Island woman wrote of her sons’ benign macrocephaly – in which the head is larger than normal – and migraines.

Difficult evidence

Unlike in a murder or assault trial, prosecutors in this case can’t point to hard evidence such as a weapon to prove the defendant’s actions caused the victim’s death or injury.

“This is not a case where our office was able to pinpoint to a specific injury and attribute it to a specific release caused by the defendants in this case,” Hochul said while noting it may take years for benzene exposure to show its effects.

Larry C. Badgley of Akron said he lived and worked in the City and Town of Tonawanda for 55 years and was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer – a plasmacytoma – at the base of his skull in October 2012. He provides the court with a detailed timeline of treatment including PET scans, biopsies and radiation therapy.

“The most significant aspect of this ordeal was the emotional drain on my wife and our relationship,” Badgley wrote. “We made it through so far but continue to be on the edge of our seats as the now-dormant tumor still takes up 5.3 centimeters of space on the base of my skull.

“There are no guarantees the cancer will not reoccur or come back in other areas of my once healthy body.”

Eric Blendowski said he fled his duplex in the Sheridan Parkside neighborhood and settled in New Hampshire after his son developed severe sinus infections requiring frequent doses of antibiotics.

“I am upset with myself every day for ever having my son in that area,” he wrote.

Officials weigh in

Elected officials took a stance as well.

While the Town of Tonawanda motto posits it as “A great place to live, work and play,” town native and Supervisor Anthony F. Caruana told Skretny the plant has given a “black eye” to the community and caused it to lose potential new businesses.

“While nothing would please us more than to have them change their name, I, along with the rest of the Town Board, take solace in that Tonawanda Coke will be punished for their crimes and be made to comply with all appropriate laws and regulations,” Caruana wrote.

Grand Island Supervisor Mary S. Cooke told Skretny that residents have “suffered because of Tonawanda Coke’s negligence.”

“The areas on Grand Island directly across the Niagara River from Tonawanda Coke show marked increases in cancer rates compared with other parts of Grand Island, Erie County and New York State,” Cooke wrote.

A study by the state Department of Health found elevated rates of cancer – especially lung and bladder cancer – when compared against overall state rates in areas where air monitoring was conducted.

County Legislator Kevin R. Hardwick, R-City of Tonawanda, said he was left “incredulous” after meeting with residents of affected neighborhoods, including a 45-year-old former football coach who cannot walk far without becoming winded and the man’s 18-year-old son, who has undergone six surgeries to remove tumors.

“I could not, and still do not, understand how someone could knowingly inflict so much pain and heartache on their fellow human beings,” Hardwick wrote. “The people at Tonawanda Coke certainly had to know the consequences of their actions, yet they did it anyway.”

And some wrote on behalf of those who no longer can.

Alphonse Esposito’s wife, Joan, died from bone cancer in 2011, and his stepson is sick now with kidney cancer.

“I am very upset that I’ve lost my wife, and now I am losing him, too,” wrote the City of Tonawanda resident. “It is almost too much for one man to suffer. I feel cheated; I was looking forward to a long and very happy life with my wife and her children and grandchildren.”