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Temporary shutdown would doom Tonawanda Coke plant, company says

If federal prosecutors convince a judge to temporarily shut down Tonawanda Coke in advance of a formal hearing scheduled for next month, the plant would not be able to reopen, attorneys for the company said in court documents filed this week.

Shutting down the plant would cause oven walls at the coke producer to "deteriorate rapidly" and make it "economically infeasible" to undertake a rebuild that would be needed to re-open.

"If the plant shuts down, the company will no longer exist," attorneys wrote.

Federal prosecutors have asked U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny for an immediate hearing on alleged probation violations by Tonawanda Coke, which was convicted of environmental crimes in 2013 and which state environmental regulators have said has repeatedly violated its permit this year.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation charged the company with violating emissions standards nearly 120 times between May 18 and July 6. Federal probation officials said the emissions are a threat to "human health and the environment." In July, the state lodged a total of 176 violations against the Town of Tonawanda plant, including improperly burning hazardous waste and unreported chemical and petroleum spills.

Attorneys for Tonawanda Coke are asking Skretny to set a hearing on the probation violation for the end of October.

The company "believes its first priority should be fixing this issue for all of its stakeholders, including the community, and putting its resources into doing that before expending resources to defend itself in this hearing," attorney Jeffrey C. Stravino wrote in documents filed early Tuesday evening.

Should the plant get shut down, the coke battery would no longer be heated and the oven walls would deteriorate. The company estimates the costs of rebuilding the battery to be about $75 million, it said in court filings. "The company does not have those resources," attorneys wrote.

A shutdown also would mean Tonawanda Coke would not be able to pay its last "community service payment" ordered by the court, which is due Oct. 8, according to court filings.

Attorneys and a spokesman for the company did not respond for a request to comment Thursday. Attorneys said earlier this week the company is working to make repairs and has spent about $500,000 since June to address issues involving emissions.

The state DEC wants to revoke Tonawanda Coke's air permits and shut the plant down. The company was granted a hearing on the issue Oct. 10.

A federal jury in March 2013 found the company violated the Clean Air Act. In March 2014, Skretny sentenced the company to five years' probation and ordered it to pay up to $12.2 million for two community service projects and a $12.5 million criminal fine.

The parties, who appeared in court Tuesday, are due back in court on Monday to deal with the issue of whether an immediate hearing should be held. Skretny told the company earlier this week he is concerned about protecting the community and wanted details on how it could modify day-to-day operations to reduce pollutants.

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