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Tonawanda Coke, after being found guilty in a landmark case in late March, could be fined as much to $200 million in federal court for illegally discharging coke-oven gas – notably cancer-causing benzene – as well as for dumping coal-tar sludge and failing to install anti-pollution equipment.

Now, the people who live around the plant are hoping to get a large portion of that fine used on local projects that will help safeguard their air, land and water.

U.S. District Chief Judge William M. Skretny is scheduled to sentence the company July 15, and community members are mobilizing in hopes that they will have input into how the fine will be spent.

“Basically, everybody who lives in this area has one kind of illness or another. The people have earned to right to make the decisions,” said Cheryl McNett, whose home faces a park and, farther in the distance, the three smokestacks that tower over the Tonawanda Coke plant, periodically sending up plumes of smoke that spew toxic chemicals into the air.

There isn’t much precedent for an environmental case of this kind, because Tonawanda Coke is only the second company to be indicted under Title V of the Clean Air Act since the 1970 law was amended in 1990.

The company faces up to $200 million in fines. Federal law requires that 75 percent of the money be returned to the U.S. Treasury. But that could still leave up to $50 million to address air toxins and land contamination, depending on what Skretny decides.

The final say in how the money will be spent rests with the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Justice through the United States Attorney’s Office.

Residents from the Tonawandas, Grand Island and Riverside will meet at 6 p.m. Thursday in the Boys and Girls Club in the Town of Tonawanda, near the General Motors plant, to discuss how the fine money could be used to reduce toxins and protect neighborhood health.

McNett is a member of the Clean Air Coalition of Western New York, which for the past five years has spearheaded the community effort for corporate accountability and adherence to state and federal environmental laws. The group’s efforts were a factor in the EPA’s raid of Tonawanda Coke in December 2009, which led to the March 28 verdict that also saw a company official face up to 75 years in prison.

“We’ve seen that when communities come together, real change can happen. Communities know their neighborhoods and their problems better than someone who doesn’t live there, and the communities need to decide for themselves what are the best solutions,” said Rebecca Newberry, community organizer for the Clean Air Coalition.

Newberry will lead the community meeting, and a leadership team is expected to emerge to flesh out project ideas and create budgets. A communitywide vote will be held the third week of June at satellite voting locations in Grand Island and Tonawanda, followed by a vote at a June 20 public meeting, also at the Boys and Girls Club, when the results will be revealed.

The community-based process comes from the concept of participatory budgeting developed in Brazil in 1989 and now used in some municipal districts, including parts of New York City and Chicago.

There’s already a growing list of ideas on what to do with any money that is dedicated for local use.

Ron Malec, of the City of Tonawanda, who worked in the chemical industry as a laboratory technician, wants to see a public health study and more monitors to add to the two that the state Department of Environmental Conservation maintains.

“The community should get more power over monitoring their environment. I would like to see grants for new testing equipment, and doing more local testing with the University at Buffalo’s environmental department,” Malec said.

Malec is part of the Clean Air Coalition’s technical team, which includes a nurse, a statistician, a chemical engineer and a University at Buffalo professor.

“I was personally responsible for a lot of garbage going into the air in South Buffalo. It was part of my job. The effects of chemical plants on the environment is the 800-pound gorilla I can’t ignore,” he said.

Durward Carter, who has lived in the Sheridan Parkside area for nearly a half-century, wants to see the anticipated funds used to set up a foundation that doles out grants and can gather interest.

Carlos Diaz said he wasn’t sure yet what should be done, but he said the community should decide.

“We should have something to say. We have put up with this for a long time,” Diaz said.

The group has a powerful ally in Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., who has written letters to the Department of Justice and the EPA, urging them to use results from the community-determined project priorities as a guide when deciding which projects Tonawanda Coke’s fine should go toward.

“I feel very strongly that the community should have input. It was the community that suffered, and they should have some say in determining restitution,” Schumer said. “The people in the community, certainly advised by experts, know best. They live there, and they’ve suffered with this.”

Tonawanda Coke, located at 3875 River Road, produces high-quality foundry coke for use in melting metal and removing impurities in steel manufacturing on a 188-acre site along the Niagara River.

The company and its owner, J.D. Crane, have for years refused to speak to The Buffalo News, and it declined to do so again Tuesday.

The company’s complex chemical process to make coke results in dangerous vapors, including benzene, as well as unpleasant odors and soot that coats homes, cars and a nearby playground.

Tuesday, Madison and Travis, 4-year-old cousins, were at the playground playing on the slide, swings and two small rocking horses.

“In this area, this is about the only spot Madison has to go to play,” said her father, Joseph Waschensky Jr., who has lived across the street for about 10 years. “It’s not the best thing in the world, because you have Tonawanda Coke over there, the power lines above, and it’s kind of industrial, but it’s somewhere down the street to go to.”

Waschensky blames the company and its owner for refusing to speak to the community and failing for years to install required pollution-control devices. He’s hoping the fine the company winds up paying will help those who have been victimized by addressing the environmental harm the company benefited from.

“I think keeping the money in the town is the number one importance. For the environment and the area, it would be great,” Washchesky said.

email: msommer@buffnews.com