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State orders Tonawanda Coke shut down after 'egregious violations'

The Tonawanda Coke plant was ordered to shut down operations Friday after a state Department of Environmental Conservation inspection of the facility Thursday found persistent and repeated violations of the plant's DEC permit.

A cease-and-desist letter from DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos delivered to the plant Friday included a notice of intent to revoke Tonawanda Coke's DEC operating permit.

The order was based on a state inspection of the coke plant Thursday that followed numerous complaints from residents who live near the River Road facility in the Town of Tonawanda.

During the inspection, the state found several violations of environmental regulations it described as persistent and ongoing.

“In response to repeated violations and ongoing concerns about air pollution, I have demanded that Tonawanda Coke Corporation immediately cease and desist all operations associated with violations at this facility to prevent potential harm to its workers, surrounding community, and the environment and have commenced revocation of the facility’s air permits," Seggos said in a statement released Friday.

"In addition, I have directed DEC staff to deploy additional air monitoring equipment to ensure the surrounding community is not being impacted from their egregious violations,” Seggos added.

Tonawanda Coke ordered to pay $24 million

Friday's action stems from at least a decadelong history of residents demanding accountability from Tonawanda Coke, said Brian Borncamp, a community organizer with the Clean Air Coalition of WNY that was founded by Tonawanda-area residents to address pollution from plants like Tonawanda Coke they believed affected their health.

Borncamp said the Clean Air Coalition began receiving calls from Tonawanda-area residents about black smoke coming from the facility in the spring.

Shortly thereafter, the coalition received a tip from a former plant worker that there had been a collapse of a waste heat tunnel at the plant. He described the DEC's response to the inspections it conducted Thursday as very significant.

"I'm not aware of any other time that DEC has ordered a major company like this to cease operating, because if they don't have a Title V permit, they're not allowed to operate their coke ovens," Borncamp said.

"With a coking facility, as soon as a coke oven turns off, the oven is rendered inoperable because the brick cracks in the cooling," Borncamp added. "It's significant, at the very least, from the fact that this company has had a decadelong history of impacting public health and the environment and was found criminally guilty under the Clean Air Act and federal hazardous waste regulations."

A statement released by Tonawanda Coke late Friday said the company has been cooperating and working closely with the DEC.

"Once the collapse of the waste heat tunnel had been identified, the company reported to the Department all known relevant information, including a stack draft malfunction report which included a detailed explanation. Tonawanda Coke has been diligently working on a long term solution to the operational issues caused by the collapse of waste heat air tunnel. Through various meetings, the DEC was being informed on the efforts Tonawanda Coke has been pursuing and the long term compliance plan it will be putting forth in the near future," the Tonawanda Coke statement released by spokesman A.J. Verel stated.

The company's statement also said that many of the notices of violations alleged by the DEC were directly related to issues arising from the original waste heat tunnel collapse.

"Tonawanda Coke shares the same goals as the DEC, and strives to provide a safe environment for its employees and the surrounding communities. We look forward to working with the DEC to resolve these issues, and continuing our operations, which contribute to the vibrant Buffalo-area community and workforce," the Tonawanda Coke statement said.

State Sen. Chris Jacobs issued a statement in response to the DEC action.

"I have heard from many Town of Tonawanda families who have been affected by Tonawanda Coke's irresponsible actions, refusal to comply with consent decrees and insistence on ignoring health and safety requirements to protect surrounding neighborhoods, as well as their own employees," Jacobs said. "Tonawanda Coke’s reckless behavior and willful neglect of the law cannot be tolerated."

In its cease-and-desist order, the DEC stated it found both the condition of the Tonawanda Coke's facility and the company’s "seeming disregard for environmental laws, rules and regulations as well as numerous enforcement actions and the impacts unacceptable." The order added that the company's operations "show a blatant disregard for the environment and the health and welfare of the surrounding community."

If Tonawanda Coke failed to comply with the order, the DEC threatened to pursue other enforcement options, "including but not limited to, a preliminary injunction, a summary abatement order and enforcement of the joint state and federal Consent Decree entered into between DEC, New York State Attorney General’s Office, U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency."

The revocation of its permit will become effective Aug. 4 if Tonawanda Coke does not appeal the DEC decision within 15 days of when the company received the cease-and-desist notice.

Meanwhile, the Clean Air Coalition announced that it will be holding a community meeting at 6 p.m. Monday at the Brounshidle Post, 3354 Delaware Ave., Town of Tonawanda.

Grand Island Town Supervisor Nate McMurray has scheduled a news conference for 10 a.m. Saturday on the matter.

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