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Hearing delayed so Tonawanda Coke can negotiate with state

Citizens groups expressed frustration with the adjournment of an administrative hearing Wednesday that was to determine whether Tonawanda Coke's air permit should be revoked.

But they remained hopeful Tonawanda Coke's days are numbered.

"We want this company gone. They have overstayed their welcome," said Jackie James-Creedon, executive director of Citizen Science Community Resources.

Rebecca Newberry, the executive director of the Clean Air Coalition of Western New York, said residents in the Tonawanda and Grand Island communities continue to suffer from Tonawanda Coke's pollution and she took aim at its CEO Paul Saffrin.

"While we have regular people who have to bear the brunt of that, we’re seeing corporations like Tonawanda Coke, and CEOs like Paul Saffrin, really benefit from our criminal justice system," Newberry said. "The delay of this hearing is just evident of a constant history of this company and the decisions made by its CEO.”

The hearing was adjourned to Friday to give the state Department of Environmental Conservation and the company time to try and reach an agreement.

The DEC, which has sought to close the plant, reiterated Wednesday that it is watching Tonawanda Coke's operations.

"DEC continues to monitor all permitted operations at this facility and will bring swift enforcement action if additional violations are detected," the agency said in a statement.

A revocation of the company's air permit would essentially shut down operations at the century-old River Road coking plant.

Attorneys for Tonawanda Coke said they could not comment on the case because of a judge's order.

Residents air concerns after Tonawanda Coke is cited with 'egregious' violations

The hearing was to have been held in two phases. This week's proceedings involve Tonawanda Coke's alleged violations of chemical storage and pollution discharge violations, with the hearing expected to extend through the end of this week at the DEC's Region 9 office in Buffalo. Then, the second phase – involving the facility's air permits – would start on Oct. 30 and continue "until all evidence is presented," the DEC said.

Pollution emanating from the stacks at Tonawanda Coke has angered neighbors and environmental activists for years.

“The residents want it closed down,” said Jennifer Pusatier, a community activist from Grand Island. “Enough is enough. They’ve been found guilty, guilty, guilty. And, hopefully something will come out of their negotiations or whatever’s going on by Friday.”

Pusatier added: “Maybe it’ll fold. Maybe they’ll say, ‘They’re done.’ Let’s hope.”

Attorneys for the DEC and Tonawanda Coke were to present evidence in support or opposition to the permit revocation, which was initiated by the state in late July after it cited the company with 176 violations related to operations at the plant.

Those violations included improper placement of hazardous waste, insufficient record keeping, failing to perform required environmental tests, unreported spills, unregistered tanks and 29 violations related to chemical storage.

 

If the two sides don't reach an agreement, and the hearings resume, DEC Deputy Commissioner James Tierney will render the agency's final decision regarding the revocation at the conclusion of the proceedings.

The revocation hearing with the DEC is separate from last month's federal court proceedings where Tonawanda Coke was found guilty of violating its probation related to a 2014 criminal sentencing.

Tonawanda Coke was found guilty in September of violating federal opacity limits at its smokestack. Those limits began to be exceeded earlier this year after cracks in the company's coke oven battery were discovered.

U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny reluctantly allowed the company to continue operations at its Sept. 21 sentencing, however, because of a lack of evidence that what was coming out of the stack was causing harm to the surrounding community.

He ordered repairs to be made to the battery and equipment at Tonawanda Coke and for the stack to be tested this month.

Meanwhile, resident Joyce Hogenkamp said the DEC paid a recent visit to her City of Tonawanda home to sample oily soot deposits in her yard and around her swimming pool.

Those deposits only started cropping up earlier this year, Hogenkamp said. They remained persistent through the summer and into fall.

"This year has been horrible. This is two days worth of dirt," said Hogenkamp, showing photos to reporters of the soot deposited outside her home just since Monday. "It's oily, and it's kind of gritty."

Besides fixing its equipment and testing its smokestack, Skretny also ordered the company remit payment of fines that it owes.

On Tuesday, he granted the company more time to make a $2 million payment on a fine.

Tonawanda Coke granted time to make $2 million payment

The repeated delays also drew ire from area public officials.

Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz called Tonawanda Coke's inability to make timely payments on fines "a big problem."

“I always want to support economic development. But Tonawanda Coke has been a bad actor for a long time. And if it was closed, I think our community would be healthier and safer as a result of that," Poloncarz said.

Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, also urged Skretny and the DEC "to come down hard" on the company.

“These are not violations on the margin," Higgins said. "These are fundamentals to their business operation, and the people whose lives are in danger are the workers there. The people whose lives are in danger are the people who live around there.”

News Staff Reporter Sandra Tan contributed to this report.

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