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If Tonawanda Coke winds up paying hundreds of millions of dollars in fines for its conviction in federal court for numerous air and water pollution violations, the money should stay in Western New York, Rep. Brian Higgins said Saturday.

Higgins, D-Buffalo, announced that he is asking the Department of Justice to direct any money received from the company in court fines to go toward relief for local residents who have been directly harmed by Tonawanda Coke’s actions.

A federal jury Thursday convicted Tonawanda Coke on 14 criminal violations and Mark L. Kamholz, its environmental controls manager, on 15 counts for polluting the air and ground at and around its Town of Tonawanda plant. The convictions carry possible fines of more than $200 million, and Kamholz faces up to 75 years in prison. Sentencing has been set for July 15.

“We have to establish immediately – even before there is a specific fine – that whatever this company is fined, it should stay in this community,” Higgins said in a news conference held outside the gates of the company on River Road.

The company was convicted of allowing unsafe levels of benzene – a known carcinogen – to escape into the air through a bleeder valve; of not installing necessary anti-pollution equipment on cooling towers; and of dumping coal-tar sludge illegally.

Neighbors of the plant have contended for years that they were being exposed to illegally high levels of pollutants and benzene, and have chronicled cases of cancer and other illnesses they attribute to that exposure.

Higgins acknowledged that the full impact of the pollutants on the community could take years to unfold and said he is asking that any fines the company pays be held in a fund to assist residents now and as future illnesses and other problems developed.

The company and surrounding neighborhood became part of the Democrat’s congressional district in 2012; before redistricting they were represented by Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-Rochester.

Directing federal fines back into the damaged communities has precedent, Higgins said, citing several cases, including the Deep Water Horizon settlement, in which money paid by British energy company BP was to be used toward cleaning up environmental damage from the massive 2010 oil spill.

In addition to the federal case against Tonawanda Coke, residents filed a class-action suit against the company in 2010.

Donna Hennessy, whose home is close to the plant, attended Higgins’ news conference. She said she has lived in the neighborhood for 32 years and suffers from myelofibrosis, a form of leukemia that has been linked to exposure to benzene, among other causes, according to the Mayo Clinic.

“I’m very happy for the town,” Hennessy said of Thursday’s verdict, and noted that she supported Higgins’ action. However, she said, “I’m not here for the money. I just want them to clean this place up.”

email: mmiller@buffnews.com