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Higgins credits community with Tonawanda Coke verdict

by jmaloni

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Wed, Mar 19th 2014 11:35 pm

Higgins pleased with decision to keep fines in Western New York

Congressman Brian Higgins is crediting an engaged, enraged and educated community with Wednesday's sentencing decision in federal court, which brought some justice to a community he said has suffered extensively as a result of Tonawanda Coke's criminal neglect.

"The fines could never be steep enough for the cost to this community and its residents, but we are pleased that Tonawanda Coke will be made to pay for their negligence, and more than $12 million in fines will be kept here where the psychological, physical and property damage occurred," Higgins said.

He credits residents with beginning the effort to get state and federal agencies to take note of what they were witnessing in the vicinity of the plant and credits Judge William Skretny for hearing the community's call for fines to be reinvested into community service projects.

A past criminal investigation by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and New York State Department of Environmental Conservation revealed the company employees deliberately ignored environmental procedures, leading to the release of toxic pollution at Tonawanda Coke.

As U.S. Attorney Mango stated in court, Tonawanda Coke displayed a "catch me if you can attitude." Thanks to the tireless, passionate and persistent community advocates, Higgins said, Tonawanda Coke was caught and convicted.

Last April, following successful litigation by the U.S. Attorney's office, Tonawanda Coke and an employee were found guilty of violations to the Clean Air Act and Resource Conservation and Recovery Act for illegally releasing benzene, a cancer-causing agent, into the air and improperly dumping toxic sludge into the ground. Higgins called for the fines imposed in this case to be kept here in the community, rather than returned to the federal government.

This was only the second successful criminal prosecution involving the Clean Air Act in the entire nation.

In a separate incident, a January explosion at Tonawanda Coke rocked local neighborhoods, raising new concerns about safety and air quality. Higgins sent a letter to the EPA and Occupational Safety and Health urging them to conduct an investigation into the incident. Investigations by the NYSDEC, OSHA and EPA are currently underway. In a March 10 letter to Higgins, the EPA confirmed it is conducting an investigation "to determine how the incident occurred, and if there are any violations of the federal Emergency Planning Community Right to Know Act, Superfund law or the Clean Air Act."

OSHA has told Higgins' office that, due to the complexity of the case, it will take the full six-month period to complete its investigation (July 30), after which it will issue a citation.

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