BUFFALO, NY-- Tonawanda Coke has been found guilty of violating the Clean Air Act in a major trial involving federal environmental law.
The nearly month-long complex trial wrapped up Thursday with the guilty verdict from the jury. Residents living near the plant have claim they have contracted serious ailments.
Tonawanda Coke was charged with 19 federal counts for violating the Clean Air Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act from 1998 to 2009. The company was found guilty of violating at least 14 of the counts in this case. This was specifically tied to the release of benzene, which is a known carcinogen, during the venting of coke oven gas.
"I am extremely emotional, this has been a cause near and dear to my heart for ten years, I started this because I'm sick, I started this because of my community," said Jackie James Creedon of the Tonawanda Community Fund.
In addition Mark Kamholz, the plant official in charge of environmental controls, was charged and found guilty of obstruction of justice in this case as well as violations of the Clean Air Act and Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.
U.S. Attorney William Hochul says the charges carry a maximum combined penalty up to 75 years in prison and fines in excess of $200 Million dollars.
WEB EXTRA: Click here to read the criminal indictment against Tonawanda Coke.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ordered Tonawanda Coke to make a series of improvements to reduce water and air pollution at its River Road plant or face sanctions and other enforcement actions by the state and federal governments. Tonawanda Coke will remain in operation. According to the Clean Air Coalition, the company can keep its doors open as long as it shows the government it's trying to clean up its operation.
The EPA says Tonawanda Coke violated the Clean Air Act with uncontrolled releases of ammonia and benzene. The agency says excessive exposure to benzene is known to cause cancer.
Government officials also say the company failed to properly handle coal tar sludge and maintain pipes and storage tanks which can leak polluted runoff into the Niagara River.
Defense attorneys would not comment as they left the courthouse. It is not clear if they will file appeals.
Judith A. Enck, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Regional Administrator issued this statement:
"The verdict against Tonawanda Coke Corporation and Mark L. Kamholz sends a strong message that companies and individuals can't simply ignore environmental law and disregard people's health. The defendants in this case were completely indifferent to the impact their actions had on those in the community. This verdict is a major step towards bringing this facility into compliance. EPA will continue its work to reduce air toxics from the Tonawanda Coke facility and address the significant pollution in the Tonawanda community."
The U.S. Attorney's Office of Western New York issued statements on the case. U.S. Attorney William Hochul said "From the evidence of this case, where literally hundreds of tons of coke oven gas containing Benzene were left out in the open, it would be hard to imagine a more callous disregard for the health and well being of the citizens in the community."
Ignacia Moreno, Assistant Attorney General for the Environment and Natural Resources Division of the U.S. Justice Department, said "The Tonawanda Coke Corporation and Mr. Kamholz intentionally deceived federal regulators by concealing the company's violations of the Clean Air Act and Resource Conservation Recovery Act, which were enacted by Congress to protect human health and the environment."
The defendants in the case are expected back in court on July 15th for sentencing.
Creedon has been watching the trial with her concerns as a former neighbor of the facility. She says she was also involved in efforts dating back 11 years ago to take air samples.
Erin Heaney of the Clear Air Coalition said "A really powerful day. And for me it gives me hope that our government is actually looking out for folks. There is still a lot of work to be done. The EPA still has a civil case that's going on too. That still could levy potential fines. There's still some question, assuming there is monetary fines, of how that money will be spent."