By Jessica Bagley
The Tonawanda News
Tonawanda News — BUFFALO — Tonawanda Coke’s expert witness Marcia Williams testified Thursday that the company complied with every recycling regulation on the books — analysis that strongly contradicts the prosecution’s witness testimony earlier in the trial.
Williams, a former Environmental Protection Agency official who now works as an environmental consultant, served as an expert for the defense on the Resource Recovery and Conservation Act, a federal law named in three of the 19 indictments against the Tonawanda Coke facility and its environmental manager.
Those three counts deal with the illegal storage, disposal and treatment of hazardous waste, namely by the inappropriate recycling of coal tar sludge, a byproduct of the coke-making process.
Previously, EPA and DEC officials said the company, in violation of RCRA, mixed the sludge back in with the coal on a permeable surface, and not a required concrete pad, before putting the mixed material back into the coke ovens to be cooked again.
As a result, contaminants were absorbed into the ground in the outdoor facility, quite possibly including benzene, a known carcinogen.
But Williams, who worked at the EPA for 18 years and helped develop a number of regulations, said that the material does not fall under RCRA’s solid waste requirements, and that the plant did not engage in land disposal.
“There’s no land disposal,” she said. “Mixture on coal piles doesn’t constitute land disposal.”
She also said that the recycling process begins with the mixture of the sludge with the coal, and therefore, the concrete paid isn’t even necessary.
Upon cross examination, Assistant U.S. Attorney Rocky Piaggione made a point of questioning Williams on her compensation for her testimony.
“Are you being paid for your opinion?” he asked.
“I usually try to get paid when I work. I think most of us do,” she responded.
Williams then confirmed that her firm, Gnarus Advisors LLC, receives $475 per hour for her work on the case, which she began in April 2010. She also admitted that she has never visited Tonawanda Coke or another coke plant, and has also never testified for the U.S. government.
But shortly after that line of questioning, Piaggione began to struggle with delivering clear questions amid numerous objections from the defense team. After Williams answered one question, Piaggione responded saying he and Williams have a “difference of opinion.”
The misstep earned him a scolding from the usually amiable Judge William Skretny, and a few minutes later, the jury took a break while Piaggione worked to revise his questions.
After Piaggione finished his cross examination, the jury was able to ask Williams questions of their own, many of which dealt with the plant’s handling of abandoned waste in tanks on the property.
The trial will resume Monday with one remaining defense witness on the docket. The government will then offer a brief rebuttal case, and will recall Philip Flax of the Environmental Protection Agency to again testify in contradiction with Williams’ opinion.Contact reporter Jessica Bagley at 693-1000, ext. 4150