Tonawanda News

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March 15, 2013

Official testifies on sludge

Tonawanda News — BUFFALO — An Environmental Protection Agency official, Philip Flax, testified in federal court Thursday as an expert on the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, and said Tonawanda Coke violated the federal law by improperly disposing of a substance called “coal tar sludge.”

The sludge, a byproduct of the coke-making process at the River Road facility, is considered hazardous waste under the RCRA, and is named as such in three of the 19 criminal counts in the indictment against the company and its environmental manager, Mark Kamholz. 

Those three counts allege that Tonawanda Coke stored, disposed and treated the coal tar sludge in a way not permitted by the federal law. And although a section of the law allows facilities to recycle the sludge back into the coal ovens, it’s only OK if the process is “done properly,” Flax said. 

As has been a recurring theme in the government’s case thus far, prosecutors presented testimony suggesting Tonawanda Coke cut corners to skirt regulations, then covered it up.

During direct questioning, Flax said Tonawanda Coke violated the law by mixing the hazardous sludge back in with the coal on a surface that wasn’t “impermeable.” 

When questioned about the sludge, Kamholz, prosecutors charged, misled the EPA when he wrote in a letter the mixing was completed on a clay surface, and therefore the hazardous material never touched the ground. 

“At no time does the sludge contact the ground,” Kamholz wrote about the company’s production of coke, which is used to make steel. “Also there is no ground disposal of any tar sludge.” 

But Flax said Thursday that Kamholz’s explanation wasn’t satisfactory.

“They have no knowledge of whether it is reaching the ground,” he said. “Contaminants can migrate.”

In response, Gregory Linsin, who is representing Tonawanda Coke, questioned Flax on his use of the word impermeable and argued the term isn’t used in the law, but is only part of Flax’s interpretation of it. 

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