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For more than 35 years, J.D. Crane was the man behind one of Tonawanda’s biggest employers, an entrepreneur friends describe as self-made and independent.

Along the way, he became embroiled in one of the region’s biggest environmental stories – the criminal prosecution and conviction of his company, Tonawanda Coke.

Crane died Saturday in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, while traveling. He was 92.

Crane’s coke manufacturing company, located on a 188-acre site in the Town of Tonawanda near the Niagara River, operated for decades without major incident or controversy.

He bought the plant from Allied Chemical in 1978 and built up the business to the point where he bought several other coke-making facilities across the country, including a sister plant in Erie, Pa.

Crane was never charged in the indictment against Tonawanda Coke and his name was hardly mentioned during the monthlong trial that followed. A jury found the company guilty of 14 separate criminal charges, and Chief U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny levied a $24 million fine.

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 at the River Road plant.

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.

Outside the courtroom, it was a far different environment for Crane. Vilified by Tonawanda and Grand Island residents convinced he was polluting the air and ground around them, he rarely responded to the criticism.

In one of the few exceptions, he wrote a letter to The Buffalo News in 2009 claiming the allegations against him and his company were unsupported by science. He dismissed much of the criticism as “absolutely untrue” and claimed the company had made significant improvements to its environmental controls.

“Our company has been a good neighbor and employer for decades,” he said at the time. “We have invested significantly in our community, maintained jobs and fostered economic development while many others have not.”

Known for his low public profile, Crane was nevertheless an active contributor to local political campaigns, most often supporting Republicans.

In recent years, those contributions came under scrutiny by environmentalists and others convinced he was trying to buy influence among regulators in Albany and Washington, D.C.

Crane also had a reputation for playing hardball with opponents. For years, he refused to meet with the Clean Air Coalition of Western New York, one of his oldest and loudest critics, but that didn’t stop him from subpoenaing the grass-roots organization for documents and information it collected about the coke foundry.

Crane also wanted the group’s records on residents who sued the company. Many residents attribute their cancer-related illnesses to benzene and other emissions from the plant. A judge later denied Crane’s request.

Born Aug. 5, 1921, in Windham Township, Ont., near Port Dover and Simcoe, James Donald Crane came to the U.S. with his family as a child.

Known to most as “J.D.” and “Don,” he was a student at the University of Buffalo in 1940 when he joined Donner Hanna Coke Corp. in Buffalo as a management trainee.

Returning to the company after serving in the Army in World War II, he became assistant superintendent in 1960 and general manager in 1965 before he was named vice president and chief operating officer in 1966.

He left Donner Hanna in 1978 to lead a group that purchased and reopened the fire-damaged Semet-Solvay coke-making complex on River Road in the Town of Tonawanda and renamed it Tonawanda Coke.

A resident of East Pembroke, he was preceded in death by his wife, the former Mary Doyle.

He is survived by a son, James Jr.; two daughters, Carole Saffrin and Colleen Crane; his longtime companion, Estelle Catherine Baron; two grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

A Mass of Christian Burial will be offered at 10 a.m. Monday in Our Lady of Peace Catholic Church, 10950 Main St., Clarence.

email: pfairbanks@buffnews.com