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Editorial: After judge's ruling, Tonawanda Coke has one last chance

U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny’s decision to allow Tonawanda Coke to operate with caveats may not have set well with environmentalists, or even company officials, but he made a sensible choice out of a set of bad options. Still, this needs to be the company’s final warning.

Tonawanda Coke had already been caught spewing hazardous gases into the air. In fact, the company was convicted a few years ago for doing just that, delivering a victory to environmentalists and neighbors worried for their health.

The company was forced to pay millions of dollars and was required to adhere to the Clean Air Act, as it should have been doing all along. So, when the company was accused recently of once again emitting pollutants, prosecutors had had enough. They wanted the plant shut down. That would have put some of the company’s 75 to 100 employees out of work, but neighbors could have breathed easier, knowing that nothing was being emitted from the plant. Skretny said he needed more proof before taking that drastic step.

As a result – and not unsatisfactorily – Tonawanda Coke won the right to remain open, but with an independent, third-party monitor on the job. Its smokestack emissions will be tested for pollutants, the first such sampling in eight years.

“I no longer want this community to wonder what is coming out of that stack,” Skretny said. The judge also trained fire on the government for failing, he said, to provide “concrete proof” that plant emissions pose a public health risk.

The company was in court again because of new emissions the government considered violations of probation. Tonawanda Coke officials seemed more defiant than conciliatory. The judge called company president Michael Durkin to the front of the courtroom and gave him blunt warnings: “You cannot continue to shirk your environmental responsibilities. … You cannot continue to fail.”

The judge’s ruling could be subject to appeal. It remains to be seen whether environmentalists choose to go that route. Rebecca Newberry expressed frustrations best when she said, “We are angry. We are mourning. We are grieving.” Newberry is executive director of the Clean Air Coalition. Jackie James-Creedon, head of the Citizen Science Community Resources, another Tonawanda group, added her own comments around living in fear “every single day when we see that smoke.”

Federal prosecutors plan to continue monitoring the company’s coke-making operations. They believe dangerous pollutants are being emitted. “I will say this, they’re not making cookies there,” U.S. Attorney James P. Kennedy Jr. said.

Members of the public have a right now to expect that Tonawanda Coke has been given its last chance. If the plant releases any illegal emissions, prosecutors should be prepared to offer clear evidence that Skretny finds sufficient.

The plant’s demise would be unfortunate for the company’s labor force, but the public’s health has to take precedence. Closure would be the appropriate consequence for future violations.

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