By Jessica Bagley
The Tonawanda News
TOWN OF TONAWANDA — The law firm representing Tonawanda Coke and its owner and CEO J.D. Crane subpoenaed documents from The Clean Air Coalition of WNY for use in a civil suit in August, according to court papers.
Crane has reportedly refused to meet with the organization three times, but, confronted with numerous lawsuits, his lawyers have demanded the coalition turn over its records — even though the organization isn’t a plaintiff in the case, currently in state Supreme Court.
“The reason you are being required to appear and produce documents is that you have information relevant to the defense of this lawsuit,” the subpoena document states.
The Clean Air Coalition has rallied against the corporation for years, attacking the company for sickening area residents and potentially causing cancer and other diseases with illegal air pollution emitted from the smokestacks at its River Road foundry. As part of their investigations, coalition members talked to residents about their illnesses, communicated with the New York Department of Environmental Conservation and completed its own chemical testing and air sampling to augment an investigation by state and federal agencies.
The law firm Hodgson Russ requested a broad range of documents in the subpoena in order to find out exactly what the Clean Air Coalition had uncovered.
Lawyers requested “any and all documents concerning Tonawanda Coke Corporation, J.D. Crane, or Mark Kamholz,” the plant’s environmental control manager who was arrested by federal investigators for violating the nation’s Clean Air Act. The subpoena included any documents sent to or received from the DEC, the Environmental Protection Agency and any other governmental body, as well as the same information regarding entities operating within 25 miles of Tonawanda Coke.
Information on air emissions, waste water treatment, storage and generation of chemicals such as benzene and potential health effects as a result to exposure to such chemicals was also requested.
The coalition provided documents to the Tonawanda News in 2009 and 2010, information investigators would later come to verify: The coke foundry grossly underreported benzene emissions. Benzene is a known carcinogen and air surrounding the plant tested 10 times higher than government allowances annually.
The News remains the only media source to interview Crane, the business’s owner. In 2010, Crane denied his business put out more emissions in an interview.
The court papers also require the coalition to hand over any documents sent to or received from the media, as well as Facebook and Twitter updates.
Also requested were “Any and all documents concerning the named plaintiffs in this lawsuit, or any other civil, criminal or administrative actions, lawsuits, investigations or proceedings concerning Tonawanda Coke” and other entities operating within a 25-mile radius.
The Clean Air Coalition is not a plaintiff in any lawsuit with Tonawanda Coke. The listed plaintiffs for the case in question are Jennifer Ratajczak, Glenn Ratajczak, Benjamin Ratajczak and Jessica Ratajczak.
On Nov. 28, the nonprofit with assistance of attorney James J. Duggan, asked Justice Paula L. Feroleto to quash the subpoena.
Feroleto reserved judgment on the decision.
Erin Heaney, director of the Clean Air Coalition, said the organization believes the subpoena is an attack from Tonawanda Coke.
“It’s a retaliatory attack — somewhat because of the scope of what they are demanding. It is extremely broad, they are asking for any document we have on not just Tonawanda Coke, but also anything within 25 miles of Tonawanda Coke,” Heaney said.
But she also is concerned about residents’ privacy, and said releasing confidential documents goes against the coalition’s practices.
“We take the privacy of our members, our contacts, or neighbors very seriously. It is very important to the work we do,” Heaney said. “Without folks trusting us, we can’t do our job.”
Hodgson Russ lawyers did not return repeated phone calls to comment on the subpoena and what the documents will be used for in the case.
Contact reporter Jessica Bagley at 693-1000, ext. 4150.