Tonawanda News — The U.S. government’s criminal case against Tonawanda Coke wrapped up Wednesday when a federal judge sentenced the plant to pay a total of $25 million for its environmental crimes, but for the residents who live in the area, the fight is far from over.
Locals began targeting the plant a decade ago, complaining of medical illnesses, acrid smells, headaches and black soot on their properties. Their work spurred a criminal investigation of the coal-burning facility, and in 2010, a federal indictment was filed against Tonawanda Coke.
After a 30-day trial last year, a jury found the plant guilty of violating the Clean Air Act and Resource Recovery and Conservation Act, and on Wednesday, Chief U.S. District Judge William Skretny sentenced the plant to pay $12.5 million in fines and to fund $12.2 million in community service projects.
But Skretny rejected the government’s request to classify local residents as victims of the plant’s crimes pursuant to the Crime Victims’ Rights Act – a designation that would have given them the right to speak at sentencing and the possibility of receiving a restitution payment. In his presentence decision, Skretny stated that the process of determining whether each resident’s suffering was caused by Tonawanda Coke — and not one of the other 52 plants in the area — would be cumbersome.
“It is important to note that the issues raised during a CVRA or restitution hearing or series of hearings would be essentially the same as those currently being considered by the New York State Supreme Court of Erie County in the 20 related lawsuits currently pending against defendants,” Skretny wrote, noting that his findings could adversely affect those civil cases.
The lawsuits include a mass tort action involving more than 300 plaintiffs, attorney Richard Lippes, one of the attorneys handling the case, said. The case alleges that residents’ illnesses and cancer diagnoses were caused by the plant’s emission of benzene, a carcinogen found in coke oven gas.