By Jessica Bagley
The Tonawanda News
Tonawanda News — TOWN OF TONAWANDA — For a decade, the Clean Air Coalition tirelessly lobbied government agencies, tested the air and rallied on the streets. But Thursday, local activists got the chance to sit down, relax and reflect on what their work has achieved — victory against Tonawanda Coke.
The coalition held a spirited party at the River Road Volunteer Fire Hall Thursday night, less than a mile away from the coke-making plant. And although it was United States attorneys who recently secured a guilty verdict against the plant and its environmental manager, Mark Kamholz, it was the coalition that started the fight.
“One of the most exciting things about the trial was that this has only occurred twice in the history of the country,” Rebecca Newberry, of the coalition, said as she welcomed the attendees. “When we said we were making history, we really, really, were.”
According to prosecutors who handled the case, the 30-day federal trial was only the second Clean Air Act case in which a company was prosecuted under Title V of the law, which requires large industrial plants to control the pollutants they emit into the air. Activists are hoping the rare Tonawanda Coke trial — and their work — will send a message to other industrial polluters.
“Now, other plants are looking over their shoulders to take steps toward compliance, before we take a step to get closer to them,” Ron Meegan, a member of the coalition said.
Locals started the fight against the plant in 2005, when the coalition was founded. They set out to prove that the polluted air was causing health problems for local residents, and their work quickly targeted Tonawanda Coke, a River Road coal-burning plant.
The coalition worked to get governmental agencies to correct the environmental wrongs at the plant. A series of developments over 10 years started to prove the activists right, and eventually, an Environmental Protection Agency investigation discovered that the plant was violating both the Clean Air Act and the Resource Recovery and Conservation Act.
The plant and Kamholz were tried for those crimes, and on March 28, a jury found both defendants guilty of 14 of the 19 counts in the indictment. Kamholz was additionally found guilty of obstruction of justice for attempting to interfere with an EPA inspection.
The plant now face $200 million in fines and Kamholz 75 years in prison. After years of grassroots work, the coalition hopes to keep that money in the community to assist those who are sick as a result of the plant’s emissions.
“We want to show the government and the attorney general that we want the money to stay here, to help people who were hurt by the plant,” Newberry said.
And although there was some talk of the organization’s next steps Thursday, residents took the time to focus on what they have already achieved. Members wrote thank you cards to assistant U.S. attorneys Aaron Mango and Rocky Piaggione who prosecuted the case, as well as EPA officials. They ate cake, drank beer and sipped champagne.
Jennifer Ratajczak, who helped found the coalition, gave the evening’s toast.
“It seemed impossible at times, but we did it. We canvassed, did bucket brigades, did photo stories and tested the air ... we did just about everything,” she said. “As Walt Disney said, ‘It’s kind of fun to do the impossible.’” Contact reporter Jessica Bagley at 693-1000, ext. 4150