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Found guilty, Tonawanda Coke's fate on the line as judge weighs sentence

Between now and Friday, U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny will decide the fate of Tonawanda Coke.

Will he order the company shut down? Or will he find an option short of closing its doors?

Skretny, who found Tonawanda Coke in violation of its probation Monday, did not reveal his hand but at one point asked both sides for alternatives to shutting down the River Road plant.

In announcing his decision, the judge said it is clear the company is violating the federal Clean Air Act and that steps should be taken to reduce emissions at the manufacturing facility.

"Clearly, this matter is of vital importance to this, our community," he said Monday.

As part of his decision declaring Tonawanda Coke guilty, Skretny gave both sides time to file court papers recommending sentencing options. He plans to issue his sentence Friday.

His options range from extending probation to ordering more fines to ending the compay's operations.

At one point Monday, the judge referred to a sentencing option detailed by a federal environmental official in an affidavit to the court and asked both sides for more information, an indication he is considering alternatives to a shutdown.

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He said the official suggested Tonawanda Coke temporarily idle its coke ovens by heating them with natural gas, not coke oven gas, a process that would eliminate the risks of pollution and allow them time to repair the ovens.

"I want more information from both sides on the feasability of this option," he told lawyers Monday.

In the past, company officials have argued that a shutdown, even a temporary one, would cause Tonawanda Coke to close for good. Shutting down the plant, they said, would cause coke oven walls to deteriorate rapidly and make repairs economically unlikely.

The judge's decision on the company's probation violation came after a hearing into new emissions at the Town of Tonawanda plant.

Prosecutors say the emissions are sending more and more benzene and other dangerous pollutants into the environment. The company says the allegations of a health risk are unfounded.

Skretny, who is overseeing the case, ordered the hearing after federal probation officials pointed to the new emissions and alleged that the company was in violation of its probation.

Convicted by a jury of violating the Clean Air Act in 2013, the company was fined $25 million and ordered not to violate any more local, state or federal laws.

The change in Tonawanda Coke's emissions has prompted community activists and elected officials to call on the company to comply with the Clean Air Act or shut down.

Jackie James-Creedon, executive director of Citizen Science Community Resources, a Tonawanda group, said she would like to see the plant closed but thinks Skretny is weighing other options.

She also encouraged residents who support a shutdown to write the judge before Friday.

"They need to say, 'We want them gone, we want them to shut their doors,' " she said. "People need to say that."

But the Clean Air Coaliton, another group on the front lines of the environmental battle, said a shutdown would affect more than 75 workers, many of whom live in Tonawanda. For that reason, they would prefer the company address its emissions problems instead of closing.

"I think it's possible," said Maria Tisby, a Tonawanda resident and member of the Clean Air Coalition. "There's mechanisms in place that they can enforce."

Tonawanda Coke's lawyers said the judge's decision was expected, in large part because the company has acknowledged the emissions problem.

"Nothing has really changed," said Jeffery Stravino, a lawyer for the company.

Early on in the hearing process, two state Department of Environmental Conservation officials testified about increased opacity rates at the company, including a four-day period last month when they were as high as 66 percent – more than three times the 20 percent threshold set by the federal Clean Air Act.

Opacity is defined as the percentage of background that can be obscured by a smokestack plume.

Tonawanda Coke's lawyers countered by suggesting the government is exaggerating the environmental effect of the company's emissions.

On Friday, they called two witnesses, both consultants for the company, to support that contention.

When probation officials first reported the alleged violations, Skretny's first action was to ask the Town of Tonawanda company to come up with a plan for reducing pollutants from its stacks.

He later decided a formal hearing was necessary. The company had asked for a delay.

The hearing also followed a judicial order allowing the prosecution to present evidence of Tonawanda Coke's smokestack and coke oven emissions. The company had offered to stipulate to violations at the plant as part of an effort to limit evidence, but prosecutors rejected the offer.

Prosecutors in the case declined to comment Monday.

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