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April 1, 2013

Western New York Industrial plant guilty of criminal pollution

TONAWANDA, N.Y. —  

A federal jury has returned a nationally-significant verdict against a local industrial plant that a citizens group insisted had been deceptively polluting the town's air and ground for years with toxic chemicals.

Tonawanda Coke Corp. and its environmental controls manager, Mark L. Kamholz,  were found guilty on 14 of 19 criminal charges. The jury separately found Karnholz guilty of obstruction of justice for covering up the pollution during plant inspections.

The company, which produces the coal-based additive coke used in making steel, and Kamholz face possible fines of more than $200 million. Kamholz could be sentenced up to 75 years in prison.

Federal officials said it was only the second criminal prosecution under the national Clear Air Act. A slew of civil lawsuits remain active.

The trial lasted four weeks and featured damaging testimony from workers, including the plant manager, as well as residents. It took the jury only 5 1/2 hours to reach its sweeping verdict on Thursday. Sentencing is scheduled for July 15.

"It is a tremendous verdict for the United States and the community," said prosecutor Aaron Mango. "They put materials into the air that shouldn't have been in the air, and they dumped hazardous waste onto the ground that shouldn't have been on the ground."

U.S. Attorney William Hochul said that given the circumstances of the plant's violations, "it would be hard to imagine a more callous disregard for the health and well being of the citizens of this community."

Improbably, the plant is located only a few miles from the Love Canal neighborhood in Niagara Falls, N. Y., where contamination left by a chemical company forced the evacuation of scores of families in the late 1970s and resulted in the modern environmental movement to clean up hazardous sites.

The effort to stop the air and ground pollution at Tonawanda Coke started nearly a decade ago in the living rooms of residents living near the plant in this blue-collar suburb north of Buffalo. They were experiencing burning eyes and throats, leading to concerns about the foul odors and health risks.

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