If initial indications are accurate, federal prosecutors are on the right track in the sentence they will recommend be levied against Tonawanda Coke. They want the company to clean up the mess it made.
The company was found guilty on 14 of 19 criminal charges after a four-week trial. A company executive was convicted on 15 of 19 charges.
The jury ruled that Tonawanda Coke had illegally dumped toxic coal sludge for decades. The company had acknowledged the dumping, but contended it was legal.
Because of the convictions, the company and its environmental controls manager, Mark L. Kamholz, face fines that could total more than $200 million, and Kamholz could be sentenced to up to 75 years in prison.
Prosecutors want the fines used to clean up the contaminated coal field at Tonawanda Coke. That, in fact, is the best and most appropriate use of whatever fines are levied.
There are other ideas. The company could be required to finance a series of local projects that benefit town residents. If residents have their way, those projects could include new parkland along the Niagara River, establishing a relocation fund for people living near the plant and a pollution-prevention initiative that helps other local manufacturers reduce their toxic emissions and waste.
All of these ideas have merit, but first among them is to clean the field that Tonawanda Coke despoiled. It is a serpent coiled at the heart of a community, depressing land values, threatening health and creating stress. The field should be remediated to as pristine a state as possible, with Tonawanda Coke footing the bill.
Parkland along the river is also a fine idea, but there is already another mechanism to fund that worthy goal. The Niagara River Greenway was created in 2004 to fund a connected series of parks and public access along the river, from its source in Buffalo to its mouth in Youngstown.
The Greenway hasn’t functioned as well as it should have, with funds diverted to projects that, however worthy, didn’t mesh with the Greenway’s missions. That can be fixed, though, and it seems an unwise use of limited funds to devote Tonawanda Coke’s fine to a project that can be completed in another way.
U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny is expected to announce the sentences next month, although both the company and Kamholz have asked for a delay. While Skretny will determine the amount of the fines, the government will decide how to spend that money.
The resolution of this case has been a long time coming. Nearby residents have lived with the threat of toxic coal sludge for decades. Skretny needs to consider the defendants’ request for a delay, of course, but absent some truly compelling reason, he shouldn’t grant it. It’s time for this community to move forward.