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Tonawanda Coke to remain open with additional monitoring

September 21, 2018

BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — An industrial plant on probation for felony clean air violations avoided the government’s attempt to idle it Friday over excessive smokestack emissions that nearby residents say are making them sick.

U.S. District Judge William Skretny instead strengthened the conditions of Tonawanda Coke Corp.’s probation, including requiring it to expedite upgrades and emissions testing and pay for an independent monitor to report back monthly.

Community members who filled the courtroom and wrote dozens of letters to the judge left vowing to continue a decade-long fight against the plant they suspect is causing their cancer and other illnesses, and polluting the air around their homes.

“We as a community see that black, billowing, sooty smoke coming out of those stacks every single day,” said Jackie James-Creedon, director of Citizen Science Community Resources, an activist group.

“We want that smoke gone. Tomorrow, we have to wake up and see that smoke again coming from that company,” she said. “That’s not right.”

Company president Michael Durkin said the plant accepted responsibility for the violations and was working to fix them.

“It continues to be our goal to be a good neighbor within our community,” Durkin told the judge.

James-Creedon and others, using buckets equipped with plastic bags, collected the initial air samples that showed high levels of pollutants in 2005.

After being indicted in 2010, the plant was convicted in 2013 of violating the Clean Air Act and fined $12.5 million. It was found guilty this week of violating its probation following visible changes in emissions.

The plant burns coal to produce coke, which is used as a fuel and in steelmaking.

Skretny said idling the plant would be too harsh a sentence because prosecutors had not proven that the new emissions had harmed the community. But he expressed frustration at the lack of information about the composition of the smoke, and ordered new sampling.

“I no longer want the community wondering what is coming out of that stack,” said the judge, citing a company “culture of profitability over environmental consciousness.”

“They’re not making cookies there,” said U.S. Attorney James Kennedy Jr., whose office asked the judge to idle the plant if it could not comply with the law. “They’re making coke. And we know there’s study after study that shows that in the process of making coke, certain hazardous chemicals are produced, chemicals such as benzene, toluene and other chemicals which are known to cause neurological disorders and other issues adverse to human health.”

Coke, a fuel with a high carbon content, is made by heating coal in the absence of air.

Tonawanda Coke’s lawyer, Jeffrey Stravino, said closing the plant, even temporarily, would have been “a death sentence for the company,” which employs about 100 people.

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