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Tonawanda Coke agrees to pay penalties, upgrade its plant

Tonawanda Coke, a company one federal official described as an “environmental outlaw,” moved a step closer Monday to resolving the criminal and civil cases accusing it of spewing cancer-causing benzene into the air.

The company, as part of a settlement in its civil suit, agreed to pay $2.7 million in penalties and make nearly $8 million in improvements to its River Road manufacturing plant.

The consent decree also sets aside $1 million in company funds to pay for environmental and public health projects in the Town of Tonawanda and $357,000 to restore or preserve a wetlands area.

The fines, community projects and physical improvements total more than $12 million and are on top of last year’s $24 million judgement in Tonawanda Coke’s criminal case.

“All of this started with the community,” Judith A. Enck, regional administrator of the federal Environmental Protection Agency, said of the money Tonawanda Coke will shell out.

Enck was referring to a citizen air quality study that was done by Tonawanda residents several years ago and ultimately gave rise to a series of state and federal inspections and a criminal prosecution of the coke manufacturer.

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

“We allege that Tonawanda Coke failed to properly install pollution controls,” Assistant U.S. Attorney General John C. Cruden said Monday. “We also believe they failed to adequately train their employees.”

Enck, during a conference call with reporters, called the company an “environmental outlaw” and pointed to what she called its long history of “flagrantly” ignoring state and federal regulations.

“I’ve never used that phrase before,” Enck said of her characterization.

The civil case, which had been expected and is separate from the criminal prosecution of the company, was filed Monday with the consent decree outlining the settlement.

At the core of the agreement is the $2.7 million in penalties – $1.7 million to the federal government and $1 million to the state – and the $1 million that will be set aside for “Environmental Benefit Projects.”

The consent decree does not include any admission of guilt by Tonawanda Coke but does require the company to spend $7.9 million on physical improvements to its plant, including new emission controls, enhanced leak detection and repair, and use of an independent third party to audit the company’s coke production.

It also will be under a strict timeline to install “state of the art” pollution-monitoring devices at its facility. That, Cruden noted, must be done within 90 days of the time the consent degree is approved by a judge.

“In fact, TCC (the company) has already begun to implement a number of the capital projects and requirements,” Tonawanda Coke said in a statement Monday. “TCC is committed to the community, and looks forward to this new chapter in its nearly four-decade history as a significant employer and job creator in Western New York.”

Enck said she hopes the settlement will mark a new beginning for Tonawanda Coke – she said benzene emissions are down at least 69 percent – and an end to its legacy as an industrial polluter.

“You drive by and you can see smoke coming, not only out of the smokestacks, but out of the sides of the building,” she said. “We now have a specific legal agreement that requires them to repair leaky equipment and reduce pollution from the coke ovens.”

The agreement, which must be signed by a federal judge, provides for public input into the settlement and how the $1 million in Environmental Benefit Projects money is used.

The wetlands funding, meanwhile, will go to Ducks Unlimited, an international wildlife and wetlands conservation group, for use in preserving or restoring a local wetland that has not yet been identified. Officials said, however, that it will be located within 30 miles of the Tonawanda Coke facility.

“It’s a victory for good government, it’s a victory for the Tonawanda community and it’s a victory for public health,” said Jared Snyder, assistant commissioner at the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

Rebecca Newberry of the Clean Air Coalition of Western New York added: “We applaud the hard work and leadership of the U.S. EPA. For years, Clean Air has organized Tonawanda residents to demand justice.”

One citizen activist expressed doubt about the settlement.

“Today, Tonawanda Coke is still in operation and many in this community, including myself, are not certain they can be trusted,” said Jackie James-Creedon, head of Citizen Science Community Resources. “Both past and recent history has supported our concern.”

The civil fines included in the settlement are in addition to the $24 million that U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny ordered the company to pay as part his sentencing in the criminal case last year.

About half of that money, if it is upheld by an appeals court, would go toward a University at Buffalo public health study. The $11 million research initiative would look into the effects coke oven gas emissions have had on the Tonawanda and Grand Island communities.

When adding the value of the consent decree announced Monday with the fines and requirements under the criminal case with previous relief demanded by the EPA in connection with actions involving the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, the total price tag to Tonawanda Coke will be more than $42 million, according to officials.

Cruden said that bottom line should give other corporations pause when considering whether to skirt environmental regulations as a way to make more money.

“What are we really trying to accomplish? We really want, at the end of the day, for Tonawanda to be in full compliance with the law,” Cruden said.

“We are taking the profit out of illegal activity.”

News Staff Reporter T.J. Pignataro contributed to this report. email: