Tonawanda News

March 30, 2013

Score one for the little guys

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The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — The social anthropologist Margaret Mead famously remarked: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Thursday’s stunning verdict in federal court convicting corporate polluter Tonawanda Coke and one of its employees for covering up misdoings proves that heartening statement true once again.

After years of persistence, countless rallies, shoe leather worn down on sidewalks in a grassroots effort to organize this community, resident-activists should absolutely take a bow. Their work resulted in a potentially staggering $200 million in fines against Tonawanda Coke and threw open the doors to a secretive corporate culture that prized profits with a shockingly callous disregard for public health and the environment.

Activists’ work also pressed a bureaucracy into action — no small feat on its own.

The fact that Tonawnada Coke’s legal defense strategy was to ‘fess up to its misdeeds — and lay blame on regulators who didn’t seem to care very much about obvious problems until public outrage brought unfavorable media coverage — says as much about the plant’s ethos as it does about the credibility of state inspectors whose job it was to verify the company’s claims of compliance.

Once again, two wrongs have failed to equal a right.

What’s even more impressive to consider is the fact that the work done here, in little old Tonawanda, has set legal precedent for communities across the country fighting for cleaner air and to force corporations of all manner to be better citizens and neighbors. Lawyers noted this case is just the second criminal prosecution under the Clean Air Act — and it happened here.

We urge Judge William Skretny to consider the harm inflicted by Tonawanda Coke — and the jury’s finding of an attempt, knowingly, by environmental manager Mark Kamholz to cover it up — when he sentences the parties in July. 

No amount of money will make whole the untold scores of people who lost years to battling disease and lived in fear of simply opening a window on a hot summer night. A prison term for Kamholz won’t help people whose own homes turned into prisons in an effort to ward off the toxic air lingering on their doorsteps.

We don’t know what dollar figure amounts to fair punishment for these crimes — but make no mistake, it’s a big one.

The real lesson here, though, is when used properly the system does work. A group of citizens petitioned their government for a redress of grievances. They got their day in court and the people won the day.

For that we can all breathe a huge — clean — sigh of relief.