Tonawanda, N.Y. - "I started this because I'm sick, and I started this because of my community," said Jackie Creedon who years ago began the environmental fight against Tonawanda Coke.
On Thursday, a federal jury found the company and one of its managers guilty of numerous violations of the Clean Air Act by letting tons of benzene, which is a known cancer causer, and other chemicals spew out of its River Road plant.
"We have a number of clients with cancer, a number with birth defected children," said Richard Lippes a Buffalo attorney who represents about 300 residents of the Town of Tonawanda, the City of Tonawanda and Grand Island who lived downwind from the plant.
Back in the 1970s, Lippes represented Love Canal residents, who developed the same type of health problems as those living near Tonawanda Coke have today.
The criminal conviction against the company makes proving Tonawanda Coke's liability in the civil case easier.
Richard Lippes: "This company potentially and apparently acted in an intentional manner which I would expect would raise the element of damages. I don't think the jury will be too sympathetic to the company."
Despite the residents' suspicions about the plant, they say the government, especially the State Department of Environmental Conservation was reluctant to get involved. In fact, it was the federal EPA that finally brought the case against the company.
Bill Scheider, U.B. Environmental Health Department: "The community did it, the people were involved and the people raised their voices and look what happened- they got action. The government agencies had to be prodded into it."
It was revealed during the criminal trial that the company failed to spend about $140-thousand for equipment that could have reduced the illegal emissions from the plant.
Richard Lippes: "They didn't want to spend the money on what was required to assure that this stuff wouldn't go up the smokestack, it was just easier and cheaper for them (not to do it), it gave them more profit, allowing them to continue in the manner that had been going on for years."
Scott Brown: "And now it could cost them significantly more?"
Richard Lippes: "Yes, and that was the lesson of Love Canal with Occidental Petroleum and now I suspect it will be the lesson of Tonawanda Coke."
Scott Brown: "Is it fair to say the company thumbed its nose at the community and the Clear Air regulations?"
U.S. Attorney Bill Hochul: "The evidence shows that they disregarded the requirements of the federal law. On top of that, the tried to cover up what they had done, which certainly shows how egregious their behavior was."