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Editorial: Tonawanda Coke ties its own noose

It can be hard to know exactly when to bring the hammer down on intransigent violators such as Tonawanda Coke, especially when the cost is to the livelihood of its workers and the tax base of a community.

But it’s also true that you can’t forever protect people from their own self-destructive behavior and if Tonawanda Coke hasn’t crossed the line, it’s treading right on it. Plenty of area residents, understandably concerned about their health, believe it’s time for the plant to go. If their health is at significant risk, it would be hard to dispute them.

For years, the plant has been a serial violator of environmental laws. Its former environmental controls manager was convicted in 2014 for deliberately violating the federal Clean Air Act. In that case, a judge ordered the company to pay a $12.5 million fine and fund $12.2 million worth of environmental studies.

Now, again, it’s about the plant’s emissions. The state Department of Environmental Conservation, its patience righteously exhausted, ordered the plant shut down because of “egregious,” persistent and ongoing violations. It could be shuttered by Aug. 4 if the company doesn’t appeal the DEC decision before a looming deadline.

Among the reported violations were:

  • Improperly placing hazardous waste into battery ovens
  • Insufficient labeling of hazardous waste and record-keeping violations
  • Failing to perform required testing at a wastewater outfall earlier this year
  • Twenty-nine violations related to chemical storage, including record-keeping, labeling and maintenance violations and an unreported spill
  • Unreported petroleum spills and unregistered tanks

It’s hard to fathom what could be going on that would lead to such reckless conduct. In its order to Tonawanda Coke, the agency reported finding “unacceptable” both the condition of the facility and the company’s “seeming disregard for environmental laws, rules and regulations as well as numerous enforcement actions and the impacts.” The company’s operations, it said, “show a blatant disregard for the environment and the health and welfare of the surrounding community.”

Is it a financial problem? If so, why not just say so and look for solutions? What’s the advantage in fouling the environment and treating deceitfully with neighbors and, incredibly, government officials who can close the plant?

Nevertheless, this is the pass to which Tonawanda Coke has brought itself. Assuming the DEC knows its science – a safe bet – the company may finally have fashioned the noose from which it will hang. That would be fine with some community leaders.

“It’s one thing after another, after another,” said Jackie James-Creedon, the executive director of Citizen Science Community Resources. “We gave them a chance, and we can’t trust them. We can’t trust them. And, we want them gone.”

Among the fears is that emissions may include benzene, a carcinogen that is linked to leukemia and for which the state plans to improve its inadequate testing. “Benzene is the big one,” said Rebecca Newberry, executive director of the Clean Air Coalition of Western New York. “We’re concerned about any neighborhood surrounding the plant.”

Who wouldn’t be worried living in the shadow that kind of corporate culture?

If benzene is being illegally emitted, the emissions need to end, pronto, even if that means closing the plant. If not, then its fate needs to be weighed against the nature and frequency of its violations and its value to the community.

The noose is waiting. The only question is whether it has come time to use it.

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