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An industrial plant that knowingly released hundreds of tons of the carcinogen benzene into the air in Tonawanda, NY, over a five-year span and improperly handled hazardous sludge on the ground is facing a $12.5 million fine and its environmental manager is going to jail for a year.

Tonawanda Coke Corp. and its former environmental manager, Mark Kamholz, received their sentences after convictions on federal environmental crimes last year in a case that began with neighbors of the plant providing proof from do-it-yourself air testing.

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The plant, along the Niagara River, burns coal to produce coke, used in steelmaking.

The plant’s neighbors suspected there was a connection between the ever-present dusting of black soot on their houses, cars and patio furniture to their seemingly high rates of cancer and other illnesses.

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Following a four-week trial, the company and Kamholz ended up 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 end up 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.

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 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 end up paid over five years while the company is on probation. Funding for the studies will be 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.

Along with jail, Kamholz received a fine of $20,000. He also ended up convicted of obstruction for telling an employee to say 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.

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