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NY coke plant, manager convicted in pollution case

BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) -- A Buffalo-area industrial plant and an employee have been convicted of violating federal clean air laws and other environmental regulations by allowing the release of cancer-causing benzene and other pollutants into the air and ground.

Tonawanda Coke Corp. was found guilty Thursday in federal court of 11 counts of violating the Clean Air Act and three counts of violating the Resource Conservation and Recovery act. The jury also convicted the plant's environmental control manager, Mark Kamholz, on 15 counts, most of them for violating clean air laws, according to the U.S. attorney's office.

The verdict followed a four-week trial that included testimony from former and current employees of the plant along the Niagara River north of Buffalo. The privately held company produces a coal-based additive called coke that is used to make steel. Neighbors have long blamed it for high levels of benzene, an element of coke oven gas.

A 20-count indictment unsealed in 2010 charged the company and Kamholz with allowing the release of toxic gases from 2005 through 2009 and operating the plant during that time without required pollution-controlling baffles.

Kamholz was accused of instructing an employee, prior to a 2009 inspection by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, to conceal the fact that an unreported pressure relief emitted coke oven gas directly in the air, a violation of its operating permit. In addition to the clean-air violations, Kamholz was convicted of obstruction of justice.

Prosecutors said the company also illegally stored and disposed of hazardous waste without a permit, instructing workers to mix coal tar sludge, a listed hazardous waste that contains benzene, on the ground.

"From the evidence of this case, where literally hundreds of tons of coke oven gas containing benzene was released into the atmosphere and significant quantities of hazardous waste containing benzene were left out in the open," U.S. Attorney William Hochul said Thursday evening, "it would be hard to imagine a more callous disregard for the health and well-being of the citizens of this community."

Tonawanda Coke and Kamholz, 65, face potential fines of up to $200 million. Kamholz, who worked for Tonawanda Coke for 30 years, also could receive up to 75 years in prison. Sentencing is scheduled for July 15.

Neither Kamholz nor Tonawanda Coke attorneys and executives commented after the verdict, which followed nearly a full day of deliberations.