Tonawanda Coke on Wednesday was ordered to pay $24 million for what a judge called “singularly inexcusable” conduct that left much of the community wondering if the company created a public health crisis.
The judge ordered about half of that money to go toward a University at Buffalo study that could resolve some of those doubts and decide, once and for all, whether Tonawanda Coke’s environmental crimes created health problems among residents of Grand Island and the Tonawandas.
The study was at the heart of Chief U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny’s sentencing of Tonawanda Coke and its now-retired environmental controls manager, Mark L. Kamholz.
Skretny sentenced Kamholz to a year in prison for his role in the crimes.
“My view is, there’s harm, and I want to make that clear,” Skretny told a packed courtroom in Buffalo. “The harm I’m talking about is the harm to the public of continued exposure of Tonawanda Coke’s pollutants to the community.”
The judge ordered Tonawanda Coke to pay a $12.5 million criminal fine and gave the company five years to pay it off.
He made it clear that his goal was to impose a fine that went beyond “the proverbial slap on the wrist” but would allow the company to stay open.
“This is not a corporate death sentence,” Skretny said. “This will sting, but I think it’s doable.”
Prosecutors said the company made more than $9 million a year during one span.
The judge ordered the company to set aside an additional $12.2 million to cover two environmental studies.
The big-ticket item, known as the Tonawanda Health Study, is an $11 million research initiative by UB’s School of Public Health and Health Professions to look into the effects coke oven gas emissions have had on the Tonawanda and Grand Island communities.
Gregory F. Linsin, a lawyer for the company, objected to the UB study, noting that the results eventually could be used by residents suing the company in state court.
“This is not a Fortune 500 company, or even a Fortune 1000 company,” Linsin told the judge.
Linsin would not comment on the company’s plans for the future – whether the plant stays open or closes – except to confirm that it will review its legal options.
Skretny also required the company to spend $711,000 on a comprehensive air and soil investigation of particulate material from Tonawanda Coke’s foundry emissions, with the focus on neighborhoods immediately surrounding the River Road plant.
“He clearly heard our voices today,” Jackie James-Creedon of Citizen Science Community Resources, a Tonawanda group, said of the judge. “Our communities have suffered.”
The Clean Air Coalition of Western New York, another group instrumental in getting the federal government to investigate Tonawanda Coke, welcomed the studies but declared the overall punishment insufficient.
“We would have liked a higher fine and a longer prison sentence in order to send a strong message to other companies,” said Erin J. Heaney, the coalition’s executive director.
Heaney said her group supported the prosecution’s sentencing recommendations, including its request for a $44 million fine.
Skretny’s sentencing followed a four-week trial last year that ended with the jury finding Tonawanda Coke guilty on 14 criminal charges.
Kamholz, who retired in December, was found guilty on 15 charges.
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.
“We tried but we failed,” Paul A. Saffrin, the company’s CEO and grandson of founder J.D. Crane, told the judge Wednesday. “And Tonawanda Coke sincerely regrets those mistakes.”
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.
There is no pressure-release valve at the plant today. Tonawanda Coke officials have said the plant is in compliance with environmental laws.
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 it guilty of all but a handful of charges.
“There was an almost catch-me-if-you-can mentality,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Aaron J. Mango, who tried the case with prosecutor Rocky J. Piaggione.
Mango referred to the “haves and have-nots” in the case and noted that while Tonawanda Coke was polluting the community, it was making more than $9 million a year.
Ronald T. Malec, 72, a resident of Sharon Drive in the City of Tonawanda, about 2 miles from Tonawanda Coke, echoed those comments in suggesting that both the company and Kamholz got off easy.
“He was a health terrorist,” Malec said of Kamholz. “That was a plant with a complete and total disregard for human life and the people around it.”
Malec said he hopes Kam-holz spends each day in prison thinking about the people who are suffering because of his actions.
“Do you know how many lives he affected? A person going into a store and stealing something would probably get more than that,” Malec said.
Kamholz and his lawyer, Rodney O. Personius, took responsibility for Kamholz’s actions. “Know that a day doesn’t go by that I don’t think about this case or my conduct,” Kamholz said.
Another area resident, Erin E. Robinson of North Tonawanda, recognizes the rarity of a criminal prosecution in an environmental case but questions whether it will make much difference in deterring the actions of companies and individuals down the road.
“I was a little disappointed,” said Robinson, a professor of sociology at Canisius College, director of the environmental studies program there and a member of the Clean Air Coalition. “Overall, I guess I’m happy it’s something. On the other hand, I feel its a little ‘slap on the wrist’ to justice in a way.
“I don’t want to come out as angry at the justice system. I just feel like in terms of setting an example – if this case was meant to do that – maybe a stronger sentence would have been warranted.”
Federal officials welcomed the judge’s sentence, describing it as a victory for the people who uncovered the problems at Tonawanda Coke and worked so hard to get the government involved.
“It’s a tremendous victory for people in Western New York who want to breathe clean air,” said Judith A. Enck, regional administrator of the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
Like others, Enck credited the groups and individuals who first raised concerns about Tonawanda Coke.
“These sentences today are truly historic,” said U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr. “For the citizens of Western New York, Tonawanda, Grand Island and finally the citizens of the United States, the defendants have been held responsible, and justice has been done.”