Tonawanda Coke Facing Federal Criminal Charges

July 30, 2010 Updated Jul 30, 2010 at 9:21 AM EDT

By WKBW Programming

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July 30, 2010 Updated Jul 30, 2010 at 9:21 AM EDT

BUFFALO, NY (WKBW) - A Grand Jury Thursday night indicted Tonawanda Coke and its Environmental Control Manager Mark Kamholz on 20 criminal charges. It says the company knowingly violated the Federal Clean Air Act and other federal laws over a five year period, even at the risk of public health.

The indictment alleges that Tonawanda Coke released coke oven gas directly into the air which is a violation of the facility's operating permit.
That's because the gas contains Benzene, a known cancer causing chemical. But according to federal officials the company was doing it anyway and tried to cover it up during a 2009 inspection.

"Mark Kamholz specifically instructed a TCC employee to conceal the fact that the pressure release valve was emitting coke oven gas into the atmosphere," stated Aaron Mango, the Assistant United States Attorney.

The indictment also claims the company didn't use mandatory filters on towers, allowing hazardous chemicals to escape into the air and also failed to properly store and treat coal-sludge, putting it directly into the ground.

United States Attorney William Hochul argued the violations won't be tolerated.

"My office continues to take very seriously, our obligation to enforce our country's environmental protection laws," said Hochul.

This is welcome news to the many residents in the area who say the air has been making them sick.

"It's harmful for us. It smells terrible over here. Everyday I come home it smells like just sulfur and just nasty. I kinda want to gag sometimes," said Adam Plumley, who has lived in the area for five years.

Kerri Coran and her family have lived right down the road from the plant for the past 18 years,

"It's been a long time you know. It should have been taken care of a long time ago. It smells bad and it's just not very good for anyone who lives around here."

But not bad enough to make them leave.

"Kinda grows on you. You get used to everyone... the surroundings," said Kevin Coran.

Officials say the company has since discontinued the violations.

The charges carry fines against the company of $500,000 and $250,000 for Mark Kamholz, the Environmental Control Manager. Kamholz could also face five years in prison. An arraignment hearing in the case is scheduled for 2pm next Tuesday.

earlier story posting:
BUFFALO, N.Y.( WKBW ) Tonawanda Coke and it's Environmental Control Manager now face Federal Charges.

A Grand Jury handed up an indictment Thursday, charging them with fifteen counts of violating the Federal Clean Air Act. According to the indictment, five of the charges relate to the release of coke oven gas containing benzene into the air through an unreported pressure relief valve.

The charges carry a maximum penalty of five years in prison, a maximum fine of $50,000 dollars, or both.

Eyewitness News has been following the controversy surrounding the Tonawanda Coke facility for several years, and will have the very latest on the air and online.

The following is a release from office of the U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul:

Buffalo, NY - U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr. and Assistant Attorney General Ignacia S. Moreno, of the Environment and Natural Resources Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, announced today that a federal grand jury returned an Indictment charging the Tonawanda Coke Corporation and its Environmental Control Manager, Mark L. Kamholz, 63, of West Seneca, NY, with a variety of environmental and other federal crimes.

Specifically, the Indictment charges the defendants with fifteen counts of violating the federal Clean Air Act. According to Assistant U.S. Attorney Aaron J. Mango and Senior Trial Attorney Kevin M. Cassidy, who are handling the case, five of these offenses relate to the release of coke oven gas containing benzene into the air through an unreported pressure relief valve. The remaining ten Clean Air Act counts relate to operating two coke-quenching towers 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. These charges carry a maximum penalty of 5 years imprisonment, a maximum fine of $500,000 for the corporate defendant and $250,000 for defendant Kamholz, or both.

The Indictment also alleges the defendants engaged in obstruction of justice during an inspection conducted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in April of 2009. Prior to that inspection, 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. This violation of federal law carries a maximum penalty of 5 years imprisonment, a maximum fine of $500,000 for the corporate defendant and $250,000 for defendant Kamholz, or both.

Finally, the defendants are charged with four counts of storing, treating and disposing of hazardous waste without a permit to do so, in violation of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. AUSA Mango and Senior Trial Attorney Cassidy stated that these offenses relate 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, and the un-permitted treatment, storage and disposal in 2007 to 2008 of the contents of an abandoned rail car tanker on TCC’s property. The rail car tanker contained a hazardous liquid that was toxic for benzene and mercury. The indictment alleges that TCC employees, with the help of and at the direction of defendant Kamholz, disposed of the waste by spraying it on the coal and burning it in the coke oven. These charges carry a maximum penalty of 5 years imprisonment, a maximum fine of $50,000 per day of violation, or both.

“The federal Clean Air Act, and other environmental laws, were passed by Congress in recognition that clean air and land are basic rights of residents living in any community. The laws were designed to protect and enhance the quality of these natural resources, and to promote the public health and welfare,” said U.S Attorney Hochul. “My office takes very seriously our obligation to enforce the country’s environmental laws so as to ensure the protection of the public.”

“The EPA takes these new criminal allegations extremely seriously,” said Judith Enck, EPA Regional Administrator. “Pollutants like benzene, a known human carcinogen, and particulate matter put communities at risk. Failing to properly install or maintain the control equipment designed to eliminate illegal emissions of these pollutants will be prosecuted.”

The Indictment is the culmination of an investigation on the part of Special Agents of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency - Criminal Investigation Division, under the direction of Special Agent-In-Charge, William Lometti and investigators of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Police, BECI, under the direction of Captain David Bennett.

The fact that a defendant has been charged with a crime is merely an accusation and the defendant is presumed innocent until and unless proven guilty.