Tonawanda News

March 2, 2013

DEC official takes stand

By Jessica Bagley
The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — BUFFALO — A state Department of Environmental Conservation engineer, Alfred Carlacci, testified Friday in a federal criminal case against Tonawanda Coke that the company violated the Clean Air Act and did not have his agency’s approval to do so. 

Carlacci, who is serving as an expert witness on the federal law, said that Tonawanda Coke and its environmental manager Mark Kamholz did not notify the DEC that they were using an “unpermitted” emissions source — a pressure relief valve that repeatedly emitted benzene, a known carcinogen.

Carlacci also testified that the company had no authority from the DEC to not have the required environmental barriers, or baffles, installed in the quench towers, which are used for cooling down the coke.

“That was the plant’s responsibility,” Carlacci said, noting that per the Clean Air Act, the burden to report violations lies with the company, and not the DEC.

When questioned by Kamholz’s attorney, Rodney Personius, Carlacci said he didn’t see the pressure relief valve during his visit to the plant in May of 2008. 

But the defense team has argued that the valve was out in the open and easy to see, and therefore, DEC implicitly approved its use. 

Carlacci also testified that during that visit, he was concerned about the rusty equipment and Kamholz’s use of a face mask at the plant. 

“It worried me that in the course of his workday, there may be enough concern for his health to wear it,” he said.

Citing the strong coke oven gas he smelled in the 2 1/2 hour visit, Carlacci said he asked Kamholz if he had done any monitoring for gas leaks. 

“I believe the answer was no, and I didn’t sense any interest in doing so,” Carlacci said. 

In response, the defense team submitted Carlacci’s notes from the visit, which don’t mention the face mask or the worrying smell of coke oven gas, thereby drawing into question if Carlacci was recalling the visit in its entirety. 

The case, which began Wednesday before Judge William Skretny, is the result of a 19-count indictment against the company that alleges Tonawanda Coke and Kamholz knowingly violated two federal environmental laws, and then hid the plant’s defects from inspectors. 

For residents living near the facility, the criminal charges were a long time coming. More than 20 civil suits have been filed by individuals living near the plant that allege the company’s environmental hazards have caused illness and serious disease. DEC air monitors installed in 2009 found levels of benzene in the air surrounding the plant 10 times greater than what the state says is safe. 

And a study recently completed by the state Department of Health confirmed “statistically significant” increased rates of various types of cancer among residents living near the facility.

The jury trial will continue Wednesday. 

Contact reporter Jessica Bagley at 693-1000, ext. 4150