By Jessica Bagley
The Tonawanda News
Tonawanda News — BUFFALO — Lawyers on opposing sides of the Tonawanda Coke trial disagreed Friday as to whether the plant’s superintendent was demoted after testifying for the prosecution against his employer last week.
Pat Cahill, who was plant superintendent when he testified March 6 in federal court, said he could not confirm or deny any such demotion when a Tonawanda News reporter called him Thursday night.
But a different Tonawanda Coke employee, who answered the factory’s listed number Thursday evening, said the current plant superintendent was a man by the name of Bob, and not Pat Cahill.
The last time the News called Tonawanda Coke to verify Cahill’s job title — the day he testified — the person answering replied “weasel” before confirming Cahill was, at least at that point, the plant superintendent.
Friday morning in federal court, with the jury not yet in the courtroom, Gregory Linsin, Tonawanda Coke’s attorney, raised the issue before Judge William Skretny, saying Cahill’s lawyer had informed him of the News’ inquiry.
He said that Cahill, who was formerly a foreman in the byproducts department before being named superintendent, was asked to “temporarily” return to his old job due to two exhaustion failures that were the result of operator error.
“He is still acting as the plant superintendent and signing documents,” Linsin said.
Linsin asked Skretny to tell the jury that media reports are “not always accurate.”
“Somehow, a reporter obtained his cell phone number,” Linsin said. “I can’t control the accuracy of media reports, but I wanted to bring this to the court’s attention.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Aaron Mango objected, arguing Linsin’s request to warn the jury was too extreme.
“The press has the right to investigate and inquire,” Mango said.
He also contradicted Linsin’s account of Cahill’s job status, saying he is no longer acting as plant superintendent.
In response to Linsin’s concerns, Skretny said he will monitor the news and, as he has done throughout the trial, instruct the jury not to read media reports about the case.
After the discussions, the prosecution called a former plant superintendent, Ron Snyder, to the stand. Snyder resigned from the plant in 2005 after the company demoted him unexpectedly.
On direct examination, Snyder testified about the plant’s alleged violation of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. The testimony comes the day after the prosecution’s expert witness on the law, Environmental Protection Agency official Philip Flax, testified the plant violated regulations by improperly storing and disposing of coal tar sludge, a byproduct of the coke-making process that is classified as hazardous waste.
Snyder backed up those claims by testifying that the sludge was mixed back in with coal on an outdoor, permeable surface, allowing it to seep into the ground.
“If it rained, water would run off into coal-filled ditches,” Snyder said of the area where the sludge was mixed. “From there, I have no idea where it went.”
Thursday, Flax testified federal law requires the sludge to be mixed on an impermeable surface to prevent the kind of ground contamination Snyder described from happening.
Snyder’s participation in the trial itself is controversial. He has become an outspoken critic of the alleged environmental lapses at the the plant after he quit.
During Linsin’s cross examination, Snyder admitted that during conversations with a private investigator, he blamed the state Department of Environmental Conservation for “dropping the ball” on Tonawanda Coke.
The line of questioning is consistent with the defense team’s strategy in the case. Linsin has repeatedly argued that the fault lies with regulators from the DEC and EPA who knew of potential compliance issues at the plant but never followed up, a seemingly implied acceptance of procedures they now cite as criminal violations.
After Snyder’s testimony was complete, Mango called Robert O’Connor, a DEC investigator, to the stand. O’Connor was part of the team that served a criminal search warrant at the plant in December 2009.
O’Connor seized a number of documents from the office of the co-defendant in the case, Mark Kamholz, the plant’s environmental manager.
Those documents include a business plan, which lists “compliance with regulations” as a plant weakness. The plan also called the potential cost of implementing procedures to comply with environmental regulations as a business risk.
Mango said the document proves the plant did not install environmental safeguards to bolster the bottom line. Linsin argued that one document, taken out of context, doesn’t accurately portray plant operations.
Another folder in Kamholz’s office was full of media reports, including one News article from 2005 that identifies an “air quality problem” in Tonawanda. Mango said Kamholz keeping the articles indicates he knew about the problems in the area.
“It’s his own, and it’s from well before the DEC even showed up,” Mango said.
After two-and-a-half weeks of testimony, the government is expected to rest its case Monday.Contact reporter Jessica Bagley at 693-1000, ext. 4150