The effort to stop the air and ground pollution at Tonawanda Coke started nearly a decade ago in the living rooms of residents living near the plant in this blue-collar suburb north of Buffalo. They were experiencing burning eyes and throats, leading to concerns about the foul odors and health risks.
Then, in 2005, an activist leader, Jackie James-Creedon, heightened the resistance to the plant by creating the Clean Air Coalition, which petitioned state and federal environmental agencies to get involved. They did, and investigations confirmed that unhealthy concentrations of the carcinogen benzene were being released into the air and toxic sluge into the ground.
In December of 2009, federal agents raided the plant, seizing 36 boxes of documents and taking photos of the plant's conditions, all of which were entered as proof of violations of federal environmental laws during the trial.
James-Creedon, the Erin Brokovich of the neighborhood crusade, said the jury's verdict not only celebrated the group's effort but also sent a powerful message to industrial plants throughout the nation that "the onus is on them" to operate within the law or face the consequences.
Erin Henry, director of the Clean Air Coalition, praised the U.S. Justice Department for pursuing criminal charges against Tonawanda Coke and its environmental officer, saying prosecutors "worked thier butts off to make this day possible. We now feel vindicated; we feel like government can work sometimes."
Details for this story were provided by the Tonawanda, N.Y., News.