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Another Voice: Tonawanda Coke ruling rejects community's voice

By Dave Reilly

The ruling this month by Judge William M. Skretny in U.S. District Court — identifying that Tonawanda Coke has repeatedly and egregiously violated clean air standards, but determining that governmental prosecutors did not establish that this would result in harm to public health — reflects a sad reality.  

There is no debating whether Tonawanda Coke broke the law on a daily basis while on probation. The facts are indisputable: They were exceeding the emissions outputs determined by law and which were an ongoing requirement of their probation. They were found guilty of this, just as they were found guilty in 2013 of years of illegally discharging hundreds of tons of carcinogens into the air.

Their "rap sheet" includes 11 violations of the Clean Air Act, three violations of the Resource Recovery and Conservation Act, which carried a maximum penalty of $295 million in fines and 75 years in prison for the coke plant's manager. Ultimately they were sentenced to pay a $12.5 million fine to the Justice Department and pay for two environmental studies of the area affected by its pollution, with a price tag of $12.2 million. The company's environmental controls manager, Mark Kamholz, was sentenced to one year and one day in prison, 100 hours of community service and a $20,000 fine.

Because the environmental studies are ongoing, we don't know the full extent of their impact on community health and safety. However, citizen science, enacted by the Clean Air Coalition and through Jackie James-Creedon's initiatives, has demonstrated that carcinogenic chemicals including benzene, toluene and xylene are in the air in the neighborhoods of Tonawanda.  

The whole purpose of civic science is to extend the principles of democracy to the production of scientific knowledge by using sound scientific methods within communities to gather data. This has been done in the case of Tonawanda Coke and the results were definitive and compelling — Tonawanda Coke was, and is, putting our lives and health at risk. But because those results were gathered in the past, they are deemed to be no longer relevant.

The sad part is that Judge Skretny, in spite of what appears to be stern justice, has repeatedly let Tonawanda Coke off the hook. His ruling on Sept. 21 was that they will be subjected to more monitoring, more oversight, and the threat of further sanctions in the future. But he was not willing to determine that accountability should fall on the company.

He could have shut them down, but he chose not to. He could have given an ultimatum: future transgressions would come with high fines (How about $100,000 for each day that the corporation exceeds the 20 percent opacity regulation?) or with an automatic shutdown, but he chose not to.  

Judge Skretny's decision negates meaningful public input and rejects the community's voice. And, sure, we can vote him off the bench when he is up for reelection, but that will be little consolation as our chemically saturated and degraded environment takes us down a slow and steady path to self-annihilation.

Dave Reilly, Ph.D., is a professor and chairman of political science at Niagara University, where he teaches courses in environmental policy and environmental thought.

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