Tonawanda Coke fined $12.5M for violating Clean Air Act

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) – Judge William Skretny ruled Wednesday on what he calls Tonawanda Coke’s “inexcusable” conduct, issuing one of the largest fines ever imposed criminally on a company for violating the Clean Air Act.

The company was ordered to pay $12.5 million in fines for 11 violations of the Clean Air Act and three counts of violating the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, which must be paid over five years. Judge Skretny also ordered Tonawanda Coke to fund two separate environmental studies, which must not exceed $12.2 million. One of the 10-year studies will look at emissions while the other will examine soil sampling.

Before sentencing, Judge Skretny heard from prosecutors and the company’s attorney.

RELATED | Before sentencing, Judge Skretny released information about his decisions in this matter, including why he will not be awarding victims any compensation in this case. Learn more about his decision here

Tonawanda Coke’s attorney told the court he feared a stiff penalty could be a “corporate death sentence” and jeopardize the company’s ability to survive, potentially putting 120 people out of work.

But prosecutors say the company reaped $50 million in profits during the five-year period it was contaminating communities in Tonawanda and Grand Island with cancer causing benzene.

“The judge recognized the harms to these victims, which I think is a very important step and that will be litigated in a different venue, in a different court,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Aaron Mango said.

EPA Criminal Investigation Director Doug Parker added, “[Government investigators got involved] with the help of a very tough community, a community in the words of the judge that had suffered as a result of Tonawanda Coke.”

Tonawanda Coke hid an unreported pressure relief valve and operated its coke-quenching tower without baffles, a pollution control device. The company also stored, treated and disposed of hazardous waste without a permit to do so and mixed its coal tar sludge on the ground, in violation of hazardous waste regulations.

U.S. Attorney William Hochul said, “These two defendants over a period of 10 years released, intentionally, literally hundreds of tons of poisonous benzene gas.”

The CEO of Tonawanda Coke says his company accepts responsibility for what took place, admits making mistakes and failing to meet environmental requirements, but said the company is making a good faith and diligent effort to improve.

Prosecutors cast a doubtful light on that claim, citing an explosion in January 31 at the company in which two workers were injured. Not only is the explosion a cause for concern, they argued, so is the company’s lies to the public. Initially, Tonawanda Coke claimed there were no injuries, and only later admitted that two people were hurt.

U.S. Department of Justice Senior Counsel Rocky Piaggione said, “This is a case where a company totally betrayed its trust to the government, to the community.”

Though the company could have been fined up to $295 million, Judge Skretny signaled early on the fine would be considerably less. He says he feels the maximum fine Tonawanda Coke could pay would be $25 million.

The company’s environmental manager, 66-year-old Mark Kamholz, could have been sentenced to 75 years behind bars, but Judge Skretny had determined that the sentencing range was 33 to 44 months. However, after hearing arguments from prosecutors and defense attorneys, as well as Kamholz, he was sentenced to one year and one day in prison for violating the Clean Air Act and obstruction. Kamholz hid problems from an inspector, including the unreported pressure relief valve.

“He was the one defendant who was singularly responsible for the release of these known killers,” Hocul said.

After he is released from prison, he will have to serve 100 hours of community service in Grand Island and Tonawanda. He also must pay a $20,000 fine.

Kamholz’s defense attorney, Rod Personius, said, “He accepts full responsibility, as he told the court, for his actions and he makes no excuses.”

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