State orders Tonawanda Coke to cease operations over air pollution concerns

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State environmental regulators on Friday issued a cease and desist order against Tonawanda Coke “in response to repeated violations and ongoing concerns about air pollution.”

Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Basil Seggos said the order was filed today “to prevent potential harm to its workers, surrounding community and the environment.”

The DEC has already begun the process to rescind the company’s air permits and to deploy air monitoring stations “to ensure the surrounding community is not being impacted from their egregious violations.”

In 2013, the company and its environmental control officer were found guilty of violations of the Clear Air and Resource Conservation and Recovery acts. 

Tonawanda Coke in 2014 was ordered to pay a $12.5 million penalty and $12.2 million for health and soil studies, which are being conducted by the University at Buffalo. At the time, it was “one of the largest fines ever levied in an air pollution case involving a federal criminal trial,” according to the U.S. Department of Justice. 

Mark L. Kamholz, the environmental control manager at the time, was convicted of 11 counts of violating the Clean Air Act, one count of obstruction of justice and three counts of violating the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. He was sentenced to one year in prison, 100 hours of community service, and a $20,000 fine.

Since then, the company has remained in the cross hairs of environmental regulators. 

On July 31, 2014, the U.S. Department of Labor fined Tonawanda Coke and Kirchner LLC $161,000 following an explosion at the plant. The Jan. 31, 2014, explosion injured two workers. 

In May, members of Clean Air Coalition of WNY, raised concerns with the DEC about a tunnel collapse at Tonawanda Coke. 

Seggos wrote Paul A. Saffrin, Tonawanda Coke’s CEO, on Friday, ordering him to stop all operations associated with the violations. Seggos said a July 19 inspection of the facility at 3875 River Road found numerous violations, including thick, black smoke emitting from a smokestack. In addition, the DEC conducted numerous other inspections in May and June that resulted in other notices of violation for issues relating to pollution discharges and storage of petroleum and chemicals. 

Seggos also said a recent joint inspection by the DEC and federal Environmental Protection Agency discovered even more violations of its consent decree that requires the company to clean up its operations. 

“TCC’s operations show a blatant disregard for the environment and the health and welfare of the surrounding community,” Seggos said. 

Tonawanda Coke made some modifications to the plant recently, but Seggos said those changes “have been ineffective and served to exacerbate” the problems.

“TCC has also verbally advised DEC staff that it will not take certain steps to try to reduce opacity, such as increasing the coking cycle which would assist in having the coke ovens operate under optimal temperature, because doing so would interfere with the company’s ability to fulfill customer orders,” he said. 

The DEC said the revocation of the company’s permits will become effective Aug. 4 unless it submits within 15 days a written statement “giving reasons why the permits should not be revoked and/or a request for a hearing.” 

Tonawanda Coke has responded to the cease and desist in a statement on Friday night. 

“Once the collapse of the waste heat tunnel had been identified, the Company reported to the Department all known relevant information, including a stack draft malfunction report which included a detailed explanation,” the company said. 

Tonawanda Coke said they have been working on a “long term solution” to the issues caused by the collapse.

In the statement, TCC responded to the DEC’s Notice of Violations, saying many of them “were directly related to issues arising from the original waste heat tunnel collapse.”

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