Tonawanda News

March 20, 2014

OUR VIEW: Tonawanda Coke sentence offers deserved answers

By the News Editorial Board
The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — U.S. Chief District Judge William Skretny got Wednesday’s sentencing of Tonawanda Coke right in acknowledging the pain and suffering the plant has caused its neighbors — while also noting it deserves a chance to improve its standing in the community now that the trial is over.

We’re naturally skeptical the family running Tonawanda Coke has taken the harsh lessons delivered by a jury to heart but Skretny’s sentence empowers regulators to keep a close eye on the facility as it works to repay a sizable debt to society for so brazenly ignoring environmental law and the health and safety of its employees and the residents living nearby.

The bottom line figure of $25 million in fines and funding for health and environmental testing seems fair.

So, too, does a year and a day in prison for the man most responsible — who ordered employees to deceive regulators during compliance inspections. But to say Mark Kamholz was the only one responsible for the foundry’s atrocious environmental record is unfair and we can’t escape the feeling others — most notably the plant’s longtime owner, J.D. Crane — got by without being forced to take personal responsibility.

Details aside, Wednesday’s sentencing should offer a moment of reflection for the hundreds of activists whose unending determination to better their community made it possible. Who could have imagined all those years ago the conversations that started over backyard fences about the smell in the air would have led us here?

The result is nothing short of stunning.

It is also a testament to that old adage, “never doubt a small group of committed citizens can change the world — indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

It is not overly dramatic to say through hard work and a commitment to airing the truth, members of this community have immeasurably improved the lives for thousands of people here now and in the future.

It is proof, too, that the system works. Citizens petitioned their government for a redress of grievances. Aided by a committed Fifth Estate — we’ve spent untold barrels of ink on this story for now close to a decade — that showed the power of a free press, government officials were left no alternative but to act. When they did, the response was swift, the investigation fair and a jury of peers judged Tonawanda Coke guilty of nearly all the allegations made.

Now, thanks to the judge’s ruling, residents will be able to see doctors and get the answers they deserve about what role Tonawanda Coke has played in affecting their health and quality of life.

Yes, Wednesday was a satisfying day.

Let’s all take a breath — and know when we do, the air we’re breathing is cleaner than it was when we started.