Prosecutors make case to shut Tonawanda Coke

Posted at 6:58 PM, Sep 14, 2018
and last updated 2018-09-14 19:05:52-04

A hearing to determine Tonawanda Coke's future took place in federal court in Buffalo. Government attorneys presented data, photographs and witness testimony showing the company broke the law on multiple occasion by having smoke stack emissions exceeding a 20% opacity requirement.

In simple terms, opacity refers to the density of smoke coming from the smoke stacks.

A former employee testified that workers "cut corners" when inspectors were not around.

NYSDEC inspectors testified that Tonawanda Coke had a "low" commitment when it came to making repairs and following the law - with an air pollution control engineer telling the court that the condition of the coke ovens are deteriorating.

The inspector also told the court that he felt Tonawanda Coke was taking steps to deceive government inspectors when it came to testing emissions.

Prosecutors presented evidence and testimony that showed high levels of benzene - a carcinogen - were found in battery/oven areas where employees worked.   

A NYSDEC inspector said air monitoring stations near the company reported twice the normal amount of benzene being released during the company's opacity problems.

Under cross examination, Tonawanda Coke attorneys pointed out the benzene emissions were below acceptable levels, but that was challenged later in the day by the government which said the neighborhood levels were higher than levels set by OSHA for workers wearing full protective gear.

Tonawanda Coke presented its case during the afternoon and starting off by telling Federal District Court Judge Hon. William Skretny that it would be a "death sentence" if it was forced to close down - because it would cause millions in damage to the coke ovens.

A consultant for the company gave detailed testimony about cracks and leaks found in the ovens that was made worst by a waste heat tunnel collapse in spring.

The consultant said Tonawanda Coke had embarked on a program to fix its opacity problems, with a completion date of possibly mid-October 2018.

Federal prosecutors have argued that Tonawanda Coke failed to maintain the operation to make sure it complied with environmental law.

That point of contention was of particular importance to Judge Skretny, who asked the consultant what condition he found the facilities when he was retained.  The consultant replied that he felt Tonawanda Coke was "not in the best shape" and obviously needed repairs.

However, Hon. William Skretny, reprimanded the government attorneys for taking too long to present their case because the hearing went much longer than planned.

The Prosecution was not allowed to call its final two witnesses and the defense was not able to present one of its witness.  Instead, affidavits on their testimony have to be filed Monday (September 17th) as the judge will be meeting with the attorneys from both sides later in the day

No final decision was made today on the Tonawanda Coke's fate.


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