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Justice News

Department of Justice
U.S. Attorney’s Office
Western District of New York

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Tonawanda Coke and Manager Sentenced for Violating the Clean Air Act and Resource Conservation and Recovery Act


       BUFFALO, N.Y.--U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr. and Acting Assistant Attorney General Robert G. Dreher, of the Environment and Natural Resources Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, announced today that the Tonawanda Coke Corporation, which was convicted of 11 counts of violating the Clean Air Act and three counts of violating the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act by a federal jury in March 2013, was sentenced to pay a $12.5 million fine and five years probation by Chief U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny. Judge Skretny also ordered Tonawanda Coke to pay $12.2 million to fund two environmental studies to help determine the extent of health and environmental impacts Tonawanda Coke has had in the community. 
The fine is one of the largest fines ever levied in an air pollution case involving a federal criminal trial.   

In addition, Tonawanda Coke Environmental Control Manager, Mark L. Kamholz, 66, of West Seneca, N.Y., who was convicted of 11 counts of violating the Clean Air Act, one count of obstruction of justice and three counts of violating the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, was sentenced to 12 months in prison and a $20,000 fine.

“Today’s sentencing holds Tonawanda Coke and its Environmental Control Manager accountable for one of the most egregious environmental pollution crimes in this area's history,” said U.S. Attorney Hochul. “As found by the jury, these defendants released hundreds of tons of poisonous, benzene-laden gas containing into the atmosphere, while also dumping additional hazardous waste out in the open. Such conduct is the equivalent to releasing known killers into the community. As expressed in citizen letters, this criminal conduct at a minimum caused substantial emotional and psychological harm, to say nothing of possible physical harm. The fact that remedial measures would have cost a small fraction of the company's multi-million dollar profits only adds to the seriousness of these crimes.”

“This sentence holds Tonawanda Coke Corporation and its environmental manager accountable for attempting to deceive federal and state environmental regulators while exposing the local community to toxic emissions,” said Robert G. Dreher, Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division. “The environmental regulations designed to protect our citizens also place trust in industry not to choose pollution over profit. Tonawanda Coke Corporation betrayed that trust. We hope the federal and state investigation, prosecution and sentencing of Tonawanda begins to bring justice to a community that has born too high a burden for having simply been the neighbor of Tonawanda Coke. They deserved a better neighbor.”

“People living and working in the Tonawanda community were exposed to toxic coke oven emissions that may have serious effects on their health and I commend the hard-working residents who have stood up to a major local polluter,” said Judith A. Enck, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Regional Administrator. “This sentence is the culmination of years of investigative and legal work on the part of EPA and others to bring the Tonawanda community some environmental justice.”

"The NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has worked closely with the Department of Justice and Environmental Protection Agency to address serious environmental violations at Tonawanda Coke," said DEC Commissioner Joe Martens.  "This sentencing is an important step in redressing the environmental insults borne by the Tonawanda community based on Tonawanda Coke Corporation's gross disregard for federal and state environmental laws. DEC will continue to work on the civil enforcement action with our federal partners to further protect public health and the environment."

According to Assistant U.S. Attorney Aaron J. Mango and Senior Trial Attorney Rocky Piaggione, who handled the prosecution of the case, Tonawanda Coke released coke oven gas containing benzene into the air through an unreported pressure relief valve. In addition, a coke-quenching tower was operated without baffles, a pollution control device required by TCC’s Title V Clean Air Act permit designed to reduce the particulate matter that is released into the air during coke quenches.  

As for further criminal conduct, prior to an inspection conducted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in April of 2009, defendant Kamholz told another TCC employee to conceal the fact that the unreported pressure relief valve, during normal operations, emitted coke oven gas directly into the air, in violation of the TCC’s operating permit.

The defendants also stored, treated and disposed of hazardous waste without a permit to do so, in violation of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. AUSA Mango and Senior Trial Attorney Piaggione stated that these offenses related to TCC’s practice of mixing its coal tar sludge, a listed hazardous waste that is toxic for benzene, on the ground in violation of hazardous waste regulations.

The sentences are the culmination of an investigation on the part of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Criminal Investigation Division, under the direction of director Doug Parker, and Assistant Special Agent-In-Charge, Vernesa Jones-Allen and investigators of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Police, Bureau of Environmental Crimes Investigation, under the direction of Captain Frank Lauricella.
Updated November 28, 2014