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NY coke plant fined $12.5 million for polluting community with cancer causing benzene

March 19, 2014 - Ben Klein

BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — An industrial plant was fined $12.5 million on Wednesday for illegally releasing the carcinogen benzene into the air and improperly handling hazardous sludge, and a manager was sentenced to a year in jail.

Tonawanda Coke Corp. was sentenced in federal court in Buffalo, where it was convicted last year of Clean Air Act violations. The plant along the Niagara River burns coal to produce coke, used in steelmaking.

The charges followed years of complaints from neighbors about black soot and high cancer rates. A federal judge also ordered Tonawanda Coke to spend up to $12.2 million on health and environment studies in the community.

Mark Kamholz, the plant's environmental manager, was sentenced later Wednesday to a year in jail and a $20,000 fine. He was convicted of obstruction for moving to hide problems from an inspector.

Federal prosecutors had asked for $57 million in fines, saying the company showed "total and utter disregard" for the environment and its neighbors.

But U.S. District Judge William Skretny said he didn't want to impose a "corporate death penalty" and opted for the lower amount to be paid over the course of five years while the company is on probation.

The plant employs 120 people.

Prosecutors sought a sentence of three years, five months for Kamholz, whom they described as the one person who could have prevented the pollution. But a judge decided on the shorter term.

Tonawanda Coke CEO Paul Saffrin said his company regrets the mistakes it made and promised not to repeat them.

About 20 civil lawsuits involving more than 250 people are pending.


"Last March Tonawanda Coke was convicted of 14 counts of violating the Clean Air Act for releasing cancer-causing benzene into the air during the venting of coke oven gas.

Neighbors who live near the plant blame their respiratory problems and other illnesses on emissions.

The judge said it was set at a level that released coke oven gas and dangerous pollutants into the air every 20 to 30 minutes. The release lasted ten seconds or more. An attorney speaking on behalf of Tonawanda Coke said the pressure relief valve should not have operated the way it did.

The defense said Tonawanda Coke is "not a criminal enterprise" and said the fines should not be a "corporate death sentence."

From the Buffalo News:

"The verdict followed testimony by more than 30 witnesses, many of them former and current Tonawanda Coke employees who testified about toxic emissions and the improper handling of hazardous waste.

At the heart of the government’s case was a little-known pressure release valve that spewed coke oven gas with benzene into the air.

Prosecutors also accused the company of using “quenching” or cooling towers that lacked necessary anti-pollution equipment and of illegally disposing of coal-tar sludge, one of the byproducts of its coking operation.

In the end, the jury found them guilty of all but a handful of charges."

-Tonawanda Coke will be required to pay the $12.5 million in $2.5 million annual installments

-Tonawanda Coke guilty of 14 criminal charges

-The government asked for a fine of $57 million, with most it, about $44 million, classified as a criminal fine.

-Prosecutors wanted company executive Mark L. Kamholz, fined $20,000 for his role, sent to prison for more than 8 years. He will serve a year and a day.


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