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Editorial: Skretny is wise to keep Tonawanda Coke on a short leash

Tonawanda Coke is grappling with how to be a good, responsible neighbor and not one emitting hazardous gases into the air. It’s losing the struggle. That’s why it’s good that a judge of William M. Skretny’s standing is monitoring the situation.

Skretny, a U.S. district judge, last week demanded that Tonawanda Coke officials detail exactly how the company could alter its operations and protect surrounding communities following a state environmental agency finding of repeated violations of the plant’s permit. He gave the company several days to outline its strategy to reduce pollutants from its stacks before a formal hearing is held on shutting down the plant.

Skretny’s insistence carries an appropriately incredulous tone and urgency. The judge, as he indicated in court, does not want this issue to be put on the “back burner.” He has reason to be doubtful of the company’s good intentions.

“I’m very concerned about what’s going on now,” Skretny was quoted in The News. As well he should. News reports about the fire at the River Road plant last week caught the attention of the judge, as did reports and allegations of ongoing pollution by the plant.

Tonawanda Coke has a troubled history on emissions. The company’s former environmental controls manager was convicted in 2014 for deliberately violating the federal Clean Air Act. The company had to pay multiple millions in fines and multiple millions for the funding of environmental studies.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation began operating air quality monitors and periodically reporting its findings. The focus was on benzene emissions. It seemed to be working, until it wasn’t.

In July, the DEC ordered the plant shut down due to “egregious,” persistent and ongoing violations. Skretny did not rule on prosecutors’ request for an immediate plant shutdown.
Attorneys for Tonawanda Coke, who handled the company’s 2013 case, insisted the company has been undertaking repairs, hired a consultant and hired additional workers to address charges brought by the DEC. The attorneys also described the $500,000 the company has spent to address issues with the “opacity” of the plant’s emissions.

Still, Assistant U.S. Attorney Aaron J. Mango makes the argument: “It’s poison gas. It’s coke oven gas.”

Skretny has given Tonawanda Coke attorneys time to devise a written response to prosecutors’ request for an immediate hearing. Prosecutors have been given time to respond. The company, too, has been given time to provide information about operational changes.

Skretny on Monday turned down the company’s request to delay the hearing on alleged probation violations. It will be held Friday.

It’s good for the community that Skretny is overseeing this case. Whatever he decides, he should be sure to keep Tonawanda Coke on a very short leash.

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