By Jessica Bagley
The Tonawanda News
Tonawanda News — BUFFALO — Some tense moments were noted in federal court Wednesday when Tonawanda Coke’s current plant manger was called to testify against his employer saying he was encouraged to cover up illegal emissions prior to a federal inspection.
Afterward, when a News reporter called the facility to verify the job title of the witness, plant superintendent Pat Cahill, an unidentified employee responded, “weasel,” before verifying that Cahill heads the operation.
Name-calling aside, Cahill’s allegations, that Mark Kamholz, the foundry’s environmental manager, encouraged him to hide an emissions source during an Environmental Protection Agency inspection, is the most direct evidence yet in the government’s case.
The emissions source, a pressure relief valve, is central to the government’s case and is named in five of the 19 counts in the indictment against the company and Kamholz. Over the past week since the trial began, federal prosecutors have alleged that Tonawanda Coke failed to notify the EPA and the state Department of Environmental Conservation about the valve, and therefore violated the Clean Air Act.
Wednesday, Cahill told the jury that he completed a walk-through of the plant with Kamholz before the EPA’s investigation in April of 2009.
During the tour, Kamholz explicitly mentioned the unpermitted emissions source that allegedly vented a known carcinogen, benzene, into the air. Levels of benzene have been measured in the air surrounding the plant 10 times higher than what the government says is safe and a recent state Department of Health study found elevated rates of certain types of cancer among people living in the area.
During the walkthrough, Kamholz pointed to the pressure relief valve and said, “We can’t have that going off when they’re here,” Cahill testified.
So while EPA officials were at the plant, Cahill adjusted the valve’s pressure to prevent it from releasing gas.
And although Kamholz didn’t directly instruct him to adjust the pressure, Cahill said without Kamholz’s comments, he wouldn’t have changed the settings on his own.
During cross examination, Kamholz’s attorney, Rod Personius, attempted to drew on inconsistencies between Cahill’s statements Tuesday and his previous grand jury testimony about his walkthrough with Kamholz.
“In at least one of the versions ... you’ve given us, you don’t make reference to the inspection at all,” Personius said, implying that Cahill’s recollection might be off.
Personius then asked if Cahill could tell the jury “with confidence” that Kamholz referenced the EPA inspection while discussing the valve.
“I would say that I can,” Cahill responded.
After Cahill’s testimony, prosecutors called a former Tonawanda Coke employee, Peter Dolan, who worked as a foreman in the battery, where coal is burned to produce coke, a product used in the forging of steel.
Dolan recounted a 2007 company directive to increase the pressure in the coke ovens. But Dolan said he was taught by his superiors and other employees to lower the pressure before daily independent inspections were completed.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Rocky Piaggione asked Dolan why they turned the pressure down before the inspections.
“So we would pass,” Dolan responded. “We were only allowed a certain number of leaks daily. By lowering the back pressure, we were lowering the number of leaks.”
Dolan said the job of sealing the ovens and preventing emissions was “impossible” when the pressure was increased per the company directive.
During cross examination, Personius asked Dolan if he turned the pressure down every day to make the job of sealing the ovens easier. Dolan said no, and his questioning wrapped up Wednesday afternoon.
The trial, which opened last week, is expected to run for another month.Contact reporter Jessica Bagley at 693-1000, ext. 4150