By Neale Gulley
The Tonawanda News
TOWN OF TONAWANDA —
A new lawsuit was filed Monday against Tonawanda Coke, this time alleging numerous violations the plant was cited for in recent yeas are responsible for illness among hundreds of neighboring residents who are now seeking damages.
“It’s the human side of it, that’s where the EPA and the DEC stop,” Joyce Hogenkamp, president of the group Citizens United for Justice, said. “That’s where we pick up.”
Members of the group met at a playground on Kaufman Avenue in the Town on Tuesday, with the plant’s three large smoke stacks visible in the distance, to explain the new suit to a few residents and members of the media.
The state Supreme Court suit was filed Monday by a trio of lawyers specifically naming 260 residents as plaintiffs, citing illnesses — including a high incidence of cancer in the area — alleged to have been caused by what federal and state regulators have found to be high levels of the carcinogen benzene emitted by the plant.
The suit, Hogenkamp said, takes aim at plant owner J.D. Crane and his company.
“Pretty much everybody has some kind of disease,” nearby resident Joe Wascheasky said. “I don’t think anybody wants the plant to close and people to lose their jobs but there has to be some kind of standards.”
While Wascheasky is not one of the residents fighting the plant, others who live nearby, like Tom Ryan, who moved to the neighborhood in the 1970s, pointed to homes on the adjacent block, running down a list of those who have died or been diagnosed with a cancer over the years.
Ryan said his wife is recovering from cancer and pointed to a home on the corner where his former neighbor — who died of cancer — once lived.
Jackie James Creedon, a member of Citizens United for Justice, spoke with legendary attorney Erin Brokovich, whose colleague, Joe Gonzalez, is one of the lawyers now handling the case.
“Last year I was contacted by the community group and interviewed to represent them,” Gonzalez, who is based in California, said in the press release. “I was appalled at the stories of sickness I heard caused by J.D. Crane’s air pollution and his disregard for the environment. Our three-attorney team will fight for the sick and afflicted people in these communities and are very grateful for the opportunity to represent them.”
Also part of the legal team are lawyers Tom Girardi and Richard Lippes. Each of the three lawyers has secured settlements for residents involving corporations including PG&E, Exxon, Shell Oil, Hooker Chemical and Chevron, a statement by Citizens United for Justice said.
Lippes was also involved in litigation surrounding the infamous Love Canal debacle.
Crane spoke with the Tonawanda News in 2009, but otherwise has not gone on the record regarding the alleged violations.
Officials with Tonawanda Coke, Hogenkamp said, are currently barred from speaking publicly about EPA violations, or what they are doing to address them, because of a pending action by the Justice Department.
Local residents and activists, however, say the pending legal actions serve only to stifle communication between plant officials and residents about what is being done.
In 2009, after years of public letter-writing and pressure, the state Department of Conservation presented its first air quality report citing “extreme elevations” of benzene in the area surrounding the plant.
The group Clean Air Coalition, first founded in 2005, spearheaded much of the push surrounding air testing and reporting in the area, resulting in government action against the plant last year, including the Environmental Protection Agency’s citing of some 27 violations in Tonawanda Coke’s pollution reports. Some of the group’s founding members are now involved with Citizens United to focus on what that means for affected residents.
“We want those responsible to be held accountable,” Hogenkamp said.
For now, members continue to collect health surveys from residents living near the plant, through word of mouth and through the group’s Facebook page (accessible by typing the group’s name), Hogenkamp said. All of the surveys are forwarded to attorneys.
The meeting Tuesday came just one week after another founding member of Citizens United, Donna Grunzweig, died following a battle with cancer.
An overview of events leading to the latest lawsuit is as follows:
Last year, the federal government confirmed that Tonawanda Coke grossly underestimated its annual output of the carcinogenic benzene. The Environmental Protection Agency said the plant produces nearly 91 tons per year, nearly 10 times the legal limit, which Crane told the Tonawanda News his plant had not gone over.
The following August, Tonawanda Coke Corp. and its environmental control manager, Mark Kamholz, answered to a 20-count grand jury indictment charging them with allowing the release of toxic gases. Both the company and Kamholz pleaded not guilty to the charges. Their case in U.S. District Court is ongoing.
State officials have also taken aim at the plant, citing the plant for violations of the Clean Air Act and air quality emissions limits for opacity, and for violating the company’s air permit.
The EPA has also taken action against Tonawanda Coke by ordering the plant to find and fix deficiencies in its operations. In addition, federal regulators mandated that Tonawanda Coke explain a pair of incidents during which coke oven gas was released directly into the air, and cited Tonawanda Coke for alleged violations of the Clean Air Act.
Hogenkamp claims just such an event occurred Tuesday as local news cameras rolled, when she said a large plume of smoke could be seen emanating from the plant, bypassing its smoke stack.