Tonawanda News

Local News

March 29, 2013

Thursday's verdict years in the making for citizen activists

(Continued)

TOWN OF TONAWANDA —

Fuel to the fire

A year after the air monitors were installed, in July of 2008, a grassfire ignited a deteriorating tank of hazardous waste — both literally and figuratively adding fuel to the fire. 

It left residents with another very public piece of evidence that something behind those grassy berms, up the winding road from a tiny guard shack to the heart of a facility hidden from view, could be seriously wrong.

But the events surrounding the heart of the case that would come to pass against Tonawanda Coke Environmental Manager Mark Kamholz didn't occur until months after the air monitors were already recording data that would shock even the plant's biggest critics.

On Friday, April 10, 2009, Kamholz completed a walkthrough of the plant to check on its conditions in advance of an Environmental Protection Agency compliance inspection, and discussed a Clean Air Act violation with an employee. 

According to witness testimony, Kamholz pointed to an unpermitted pressure relief valve and said, "We can't have that going off while they're here." 

That statement and his attempt to influence the EPA's inspection, which occurred the following week, ultimately led to the obstruction of justice conviction — which carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in federal prison. 

Numbers are in

The situation grew even worse for Tonawanda Coke when the DEC's air monitoring study was released in June 2009. The study indicated the levels of the carcinogen benzene surrounding the facility were off the charts.

"Higher daily concentrations of benzene were found when the wind came from the direction of the largest known point source of benzene, the Tonawanda Coke Corporation," the report states. 

That's the technical language. What the monitors found in layman's terms was a quantity of benzene in the area 10 times higher than what's considered safe — and it pointed to Tonawanda Coke as the single largest source.

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