BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — An industrial plant that knowingly released hundreds of tons of the carcinogen benzene into the air over a five-year span and improperly handled hazardous sludge on the ground was fined $12.5 million on Wednesday, and a manager was sentenced to a year in jail.
Tonawanda Coke Corp. and its former environmental manager, Mark Kamholz, were convicted of federal environmental crimes last year in a case that began with do-it-yourself air testing by neighbors of the plant. The plant, along the Niagara River, burns coal to produce coke, used in steelmaking.
The plant's neighbors suspected that the ever-present dusting of black soot on their houses, cars and patio furniture was connected to their seemingly high rates of cancer and other illnesses.
"I lost my mom, and through the trial I could connect the dots between when the benzene was in the air and when she needed blood transfusions," said Joyce Hogenkamp, whose 72-year-old mother died of heart failure in 2006 and who now has health issues of her own.
Following a four-week trial, the company and Kamholz were convicted in March 2013 of violating the Clean Air Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act and of improperly disposing of tar sludge and waste from tanks. Besides the fine, U.S. Judge William Skretny ordered Tonawanda Coke to spend up to $12.2 million on two environmental studies.
Tonawanda Coke attorney Gregory Linsin objected to the study provision, saying it amounted to the company paying for findings that could be used against it in 20 civil cases pending in state court.
Because of the civil cases, the judge declined to address the issue of individual harm or to designate residents as victims at the sentencing hearing, which would have entitled them to speak. But he acknowledged the damage inflicted by repeated exposure to cancer-causing toxins between 2005 and 2009.
"Individuals living with the fear of the unknown and the future risk of illness, that's harm," the judge said.
During that time, a pressure relief valve regularly opened when the pressure in the coke oven gas line exceeded its setting, emitting benzene-containing gas each time. The gas was released as often as every 20 or 30 minutes for 10 seconds or more during high production periods, authorities said.
U.S. Attorney William Hochul said the company's "knowing and intentional" actions elevated the case to a crime.
"The fact that remedial measures would have cost a small fraction of the company's multimillion profits only adds to the seriousness of these crimes," Hochul said.
Federal prosecutors had asked for $57 million in fines, saying the company showed "total and utter disregard" for the environment, regulations and neighbors. But the judge said he didn't want to impose a "corporate death penalty" and opted for the lower amount, to be paid over five years while the company is on probation. The studies will be funded over 10 years.
The plant, which employs 120 people, "sincerely regrets these mistakes and vows to learn from them," its chief executive, Paul Saffrin, said to the court.
Rocky Paggione, of the U.S. Department of Justice's Environmental Crimes Section in Washington, said the fine may be the largest ever imposed by a court for environmental crimes, though other companies have paid more as part of negotiated settlements.
Along with jail, Kamholz was fined $20,000. He also was convicted of obstruction for telling an employee to see that the pressure relief valve didn't open while a federal inspector was on site.
Kamholz, who retired in December after 43 years, apologized for the "uncertainty" of residents who believe the company has a role in their illnesses.
"I do accept responsibility for the consequences of my actions and failure to act," Kamholz said.
Judith Enck, regional administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, praised the people who initially brought the issue to the attention of state and federal officials, leading to further testing and the 2010 indictment.
Resident Jackie James-Creedon and others, using buckets equipped with plastic bags, in 2005 collected the initial air samples that showed high levels of pollutants.
"We wanted our air to be cleaner, and we were wondering why everybody was sick," James-Creedon, who suffers from fibromyalgia, said after the sentencing. "We had no clue they were breaking the law."