By Michael Regan
The Tonawanda News
Tonawanda News —
BUFFALO — New York state Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Joseph Martens, making his first visit to a neighborhood at the center of a massive criminal air pollution trial, said he had a "very moving discussion" with residents who fought for years to clean up the air they said was making them sick.
For years, residents complained of acrid-smelling smoke and noted what seemed to be a disturbing number of people with cancer and other illnesses. Thursday Martens had an opportunity to see the area for himself — and residents had the chance to air their grievances with the state's top environmental official.
"They described where they live, what their experience has been over the years, their concerns about the community. Then we met afterwards and had a very moving discussion," Martens said of the 45-minute private meeting.
In talking to the media following the tour, Martens defended the agency against criticism from many of those resident-activists who said the DEC ignored individual complaints for years and only took action when residents began to organize into what would become known as the Clean Air Coalition of WNY.
He said a jury's verdict, that Tonawanda Coke and one of its top executives hid pollution sources from state inspectors, made clear the reason the plant got away with polluting the air for as long as it did.
"I think the conviction speaks for itself," he said. "The court agreed that this was not DEC turning a blind eye. The fact is that things were concealed from DEC."
Lawyers for Tonawanda Coke sought to convince jurors the problems at the plant were known to state regulators — or at least they should have been. Defense lawyers said DEC inspectors saw the problems and never spoke up or ordered the plant to make changes, thereby implicitly sanctioning the facility's procedures.
Tonawanda Coke and the plant's Environmental Manager Mark Kamholz were convicted on 14 of 19 counts March 29 of violating the federal Clean Air and Resource Recovery and Conservation acts. Tonawanda Coke faces a potential $200 million fine and Kamholz 75 years in prison at sentencing July 15.
Erin Heaney, executive director of the Clean Air Coalition, said prior to the meeting her group would press Martens to keep air quality monitors in place — and sought a promise to extend funding beyond 2014, the last year the DEC has budgeted for them.
But while Martens indicated Thursday that he understood the importance of the air monitors for use as evidence against the company, he did not specifically commit to keeping them in place past the funding deadline, citing the cost of maintaining them.
"Our whole philosophy is to make any entity comply with the permit," he said. "Compliance is the big issue here. The convictions have gotten not only Tonawanda Coke's attention, but everybody's attention. I think the message to industry across the country is that if you don't comply there could be serious consequences."  Contact reporter Michael Regan at 693-1000, ext. 4115.