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Judge hands Tonawanda Coke another setback

A federal judge rejected Tonawanda Coke's efforts to limit evidence of its emissions when it appears in court Friday, its second legal defeat in less than a week.

In ruling against the company, U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny gave federal prosecutors the go-ahead to present proof of what they claim is an environmental threat to the community around the River Road plant.

The company, as part of its motion for a streamlined hearing, offered to "stipulate" to violations at the plant. But prosecutors rejected the offer.

"It is not for Tonawanda Coke to decide how the government will present evidence," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Aaron J. Mango.

Mango, in court papers, called the offer a "last minute attempt" to limit proof of the company's daily violations of the federal Clean Air Act.

In recent days, community activists and elected officials have called on Tonawanda Coke to comply with the law or shut down.

Erie County joined the chorus this week when it asked Skretny for permission to file a friend of the court brief supporting sanctions against Tonawanda Coke.

"It is clear to the county that Tonawanda Coke has and continues to place the financial success of its operations before the health of and well-being of the county's residents," said Erie County Attorney Michael A. Siragusa.

In court papers, Siragusa said Skretny should require the company to comply with all environmental laws and, if necessary, order it to cease operations until it can comply.

Skretny denied the county's request to file its own brief.

The judge's order allowing evidence of Tonawanda Coke's smokestack and coke oven emissions came just two days after he ordered a formal hearing into the emissions. The company had sought to delay the hearing.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation, which wants to shut the plant down, claims the company violated emission standards dozens of times over a two-month period this summer.

Lawyers for Tonawanda Coke acknowledge the company's probation violations but say state officials are exaggerating the environmental risks. They also say air quality data gathered by the state will prove them right.

In court papers, the company says the state has been aware of the emissions problem and the company's efforts to fix it for months. Lawyers say an unforeseeable event, the collapse of a "waste heat tunnel," led to the increase in emissions.

"TCC has been forthright with NYSEDC about its investigation into the underlying causes and its subsequent repairs to the waste heat tunnel," said Reetuparna Dutta, a lawyer for the company.

Dutta, in court papers, said the company is working with a licensed professional engineer, a specialist in thermal processes, as part of its efforts.

Skretny's order allowing evidence of Tonawanda Coke's emissions is the latest development in a criminal case that dates back to a 2013 trial and conviction and a sentence that included $25 million in fines.

Skretny ordered the company back into court when federal probation officials in Buffalo pointed to the new emissions and accused the company of violating its promise not to break local, state or federal laws.

During Tonawanda Coke's first court appearance, Skretny asked the company to come up with a plan for reducing pollutants from its stacks but he later decided a formal hearing was necessary.

Early on, the company suggested that, if federal prosecutors succeed in temporarily shutting it down, the plant will not reopen. Tonawanda Coke claims the closing, however brief, will cause coke oven walls to "deteriorate rapidly" and make it "economically infeasible" to repair them.

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