BUFFALO, N.Y. — Attorneys for Tonawanda Coke explained efforts the company is taking to reduce emissions at its plant during a hearing in U.S. District Court Monday afternoon.
They say five coke ovens were taken out of service earlier this month, and 2 have since been repaired. The coke produced at the plant is a solid coal byproduct resulting when coal is heated in an airless chamber.
On September 5, they say the opacity levels were at 66.2 percent.
Sunday, it was at 22.4 percent.
They add that no matter the level of opacity, they don't believe any emissions from the plant cause people harm.
"We're committed to the community, and as you've heard me say, I'm a resident of Grand Island, and I don't believe that there's any proof in the record showing that there's an imminent and substantial endangerment to the community," said Tonawanda Coke Attorney Jeff Stravino.
Under the Clean Air Act, opacity levels must be under 20 percent.
Clean Air Coalition Executive Director Rebecca Newberry disagrees with the company's contention that high opacity levels are not a proper reflection of air quality coming from its stacks.
"Environmental regulations are made to protect human health. That's why they're created, and what came out today is that Tonawanda Coke has confirmed they've been in violation of their opacity limits. We know opacity is tied to environmental health and human health," Newberry said.
Tonawanda Coke was fined $12.5 million for violating the Clean Air Act in 2014 and had to pay an additional $12.2 million dollars in community service payments.
The U.S. Attorney's Office says the company has had continuously been above acceptable opacity levels since May 2, and had additional violations in January, February and March of this year and once in 2016.
"The documents that we filed on Friday, which include color photographs and show black smoke, blue smoke, all types of different emissions going into the air, establish that there are hazardous air pollutants," said Assistant. U.S. Attorney Aaron Mango.
U.S. District Court Judge William Skretny announced that a hearing will be held this Friday to determine whether there will be further sanctions against Tonawanda Coke, and that he could extend the company’s probation, or revoke that probation and re-sentence them.
Attorneys for Tonawanda Coke requested that hearing take place in late October, so it would take place after the company's October 10 appeal hearing with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, which called for the company to shut down operations in July over emissions violations.
Community activists applauded the judge's decision.
"His thoughtfulness towards this community says a lot for what Tonawanda Coke has done wrong with the probation violations. We're hoping that the government can prove their case, that there is a re-sentencing, and that either the probation is extended for however long we need to keep them in check or part of their probation violation is that they are shut down," said Joyce Hogancamp of Citizens United for Justice.