An $11 million study of toxic emissions from Tonawanda Coke and their impact on people’s health is one of the initiatives federal prosecutors want funded with fines from the company.
The study by the University at Buffalo would monitor residents in the Town of Tonawanda and Grand Island for a period of time in an effort to document the public health impact of the company’s criminal activity.
Prosecutors unveiled the UB initiative as part of their recommendations Monday on how to use $57 million in fines they think should be levied by the federal judge in the case.
“This case involved, in essence, the defendants releasing known killers into the air and ground of an unsuspecting community, and doing so over and over again on a nearly daily basis for decades,” prosecutors said in their report to the court. “As such, the defendants must be appropriately punished.”
If approved, UB’s epidemiology study could go a long way toward answering questions about the public health impact of benzene and other toxic air emissions from Tonawanda Coke.
The company was found guilty of 14 criminal charges during a four-week trial earlier this year. Mark L. Kamholz, its environmental controls manager, was found guilty of 15 criminal 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.
The company and Kamholz face possible fines of more than $200 million, and Kamholz could be sentenced to up to 75 years in prison.
Federal prosecutors in the case want Chief U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny to levy a fine of $57 million, with most it, about $44 million, classified as a criminal fine.
They also want Kamholz sent to prison for more than 8 years.
Aside from the criminal fine, the big-ticket item is the public health study by UB’s School of Public Health and Health Professions.
The research initiative, known as the Tonawanda Health Study, is billed as a multi-phase study that would help the community in understanding and addressing the health risks posed by the defendants’ criminal conduct.
“We really need partners in academia to put together pieces of the puzzle,” said Erin Heaney, executive director of the Clean Air Coalition of Western New York.
Skretny will make the final decision on the amount of the fines and how they should be spent, but he is certain to take into account the recommendations of U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr. and the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C.
The UB study is not the only project prosecutors are recommending to the court.
In their report to Skretny, Assistant U.S. Attorneys Aaron J. Mango and Rocky Piaggione also suggested $711,000 be set aside for a comprehensive air and soil investigation of particulate material from Tonawanda Coke’s foundry emissions.
The study would focus on neighborhoods immediately surrounding the River Road plant. Residents claim previous studies have been inconclusive.
“There are other air toxins coming off the plant,”said Jackie James Creedon, founder of the Tonawanda Community Fund, the local citizens group pushing the initiative. “Our study is a comprehensive study.”
Prosecutors also are recommending funding for an Industrial Pollution Prevention Project, an effort designed to reduce hazardous emissions by manufacturers in Tonawanda, Riverside and Grand Island.
They also want Skretny to order Tonawanda Coke to fund a cleanup of the coal field at the plant.
During the trial, workers and environmental officials testified about toxic coal tar sludge that was dumped on the coal field and how the practice continued for decades.
Coal tar sludge contamination also was at the heart of one of the charges the company was found guilty of by the jury hearing the case.
“It’s really important that polluters, not taxpayers, pay for remediation,” said Heaney.
In many ways, the Justice Department’s proposals reflect the wishes of residents.
Over the past several months, dozens of people have put forth ideas on how to use the fines.
They range from new parkland along the Niagara River to a relocation fund for people who live near the plant.
The sentencing, scheduled for Sept. 30, has been put off indefinitely.
The two sides are expected to meet with Skretny on Oct. 22 to discuss the need for a hearing prior to sentencing.