By David E. Hess | PA Environment News Digest | December 19, 2022
On November 15, 2022, Erie Coke Corporation, along with the plant superintendent, was indicted by a federal grand jury in Erie on among other charges, violation of the Clean Air Act.
Now, the US Attorney’s Office of Western PA is inviting victims of Erie Coke to come forward with statements about how they have been negatively impacted.
According to the Indictment presented to the court, from in and around October 2015 and continuing until in and around December 2019, Erie Coke Corporation and personnel tampered with measurements on heating systems which emitted contaminants and pollutants into the air including volatile gases such as benzene, toluene, and xylene.
Such hazardous air pollutants were released directly into the air to avoid the plant’s environmental monitoring system.
Erie Coke Corporation was a plant regulated by federal and state statutes and regulations including the federal Clean Air Act administered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Environmental Protection, which was located adjacent to numerous private residences, public facilities, and several schools.
Now that charges have been filed in federal court, victims of the charges filed are entitled to a host of rights, according to the Crime Victims’ Rights Act, including:
— The right to full and timely restitution as provided in law.
— The reasonable right to confer with the attorney for the Government in the case.
— The right to notice of public court proceedings.
— The right to be heard at public proceedings involving release, plea, sentencing, or parole.
A website has been created to aid the public in pursuit of these rights. The website includes:
— Indictment as to Erie Coke Corporation and Anthony Nearhoof
— Information and Assistance for Federal Crime Victims and Witnesses
— Victim Impact Statements: Know Your Rights
— Victim Impact Statement Template
It is further noted that independent of this legal action, the PA Crime Victims Compensation Program can pay victims back for certain types of out-of-pocket expenses for physical or emotional injuries received as a direct result of the crime.
These expenses include medical bills, counseling costs, funeral bills, and lost wages. This is not the same as the above noted possibility of restitution.
A crime victim can file for benefits immediately following the crime, even if no arrest has been made.
For more information, contact the Crime Victims Compensation Program at 1-800-233-2339 or 717-783- 5153 in Pennsylvania.
Hold Erie Coke Accountable encourages anyone who believes they have been negatively impacted by Erie Coke’s offenses, to complete and submit a Victim Impact Statement. The statements may assist the judge when he or she decides what sentence the Erie Coke should receive.
The Victim Impact Statement is also a person’s opportunity to state a financial loss which is used to verify and assess the financial impact of the crime upon the individual.
This information is used by the Judge to determine any money the Erie Coke defendants may have to pay for expenses victims have had to pay for or money a person owes because of the crime by Erie Coke.
When the judge possibly orders the Erie Coke defendants to pay the victim it is called “restitution.”
For example, the Victim Impact Statement includes the following questions–
— Negative Health Effects: Please explain any negative health effects you (or the person you represent) experienced resulting from the exposure to a pollutant or chemical released by the defendant(s). The health impacts may be immediate and plain to see or may be less obvious or take time to develop.
— Chemicals Released Into The Air: Please explain in as much detail as you can how the crime caused these physical impacts (such as, “my asthma was triggered each time the plant released chemicals into the air”).
For example, think of: physical pain, discomfort, illness, scarring, disfigurement or physical limitation; immediate or short-term medical care; hospitalization or surgery you have had; treatment, counseling, or medication you have been prescribed; the need for any further treatment or the expectation you will receive further treatment; and/or any permanent or long term disability.
— Emotional Impacts: Please describe any emotional impact this crime had on you (or the person you represent). For example, think of how the crime has impacted your ability to live, learn, work, play or worship, including impacts to your lifestyle or daily activities; your mental well-being, sleeping habits, depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress; your relationships with others such as your spouse, family and friends; your ability to work, attend school or study; your feelings, emotions and reactions as they relate to the crime and/or defendant(s); and/or counseling or wellness groups to assist your recovery
— Consequences Of Crimes: What would you (or the person you represent) like to see happen to the person and/or corporation who committed this crime?
— Information For Judge: Is there anything else you would like the judge to know before a sentence is imposed?
— Financial Losses: List any financial losses you have incurred or expect to incur as a result of these crimes.
Hold Erie Coke Accountable urges anyone who believes they are a victim of Erie Coke’s abuse of the community or would just like to opt-in to receive case notifications or if they have any questions about their rights, to contact the Victim Witness Coordinator at 412-894-7400 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org or through their website.
Additionally, if one would like to submit a victim impact statement for the Court to review in the event that one or both of the defendants are convicted, the public may submit a letter or complete the “Victim Impact Statement Template” and email your statement to email@example.com or mail it to:
US Attorney’s Office – Western District of Pennsylvania
700 Grant Street, Suite 4000
Pittsburgh, PA 15219
Google Maps location: https://goo.gl/maps/T9NM5hUGRDwwM3rB6
Hold Erie Coke Accountable further advises the public that, aside from this matter of Erie Coke, concerns or complaints about environmental pollution can easily be submitted to the Department of Environmental Protection (online or by phone, even anonymously).
See this informative website for how-to instructions: DEP Environmental Complaints or by calling (866) 255-5158.
November 17, 2022 – ERIE, PA – Erie Coke Corporation, along with a corporate officer, have been indicted by a federal grand jury in Erie on among other charges, Violation of the Clean Air Act, United States Attorney Cindy K. Chung announced today.
The eight-count Indictment, returned on Nov. 15, 2022, and unsealed today, named Erie Coke Corporation, now permanently out of operation, and Anthony Nearhoof, 41, of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, as the defendants.
According to the Indictment presented to the court, from in and around October 2015 and continuing until in and around December 2019, Erie Coke Corporation and Nearhoof tampered with measurements on heating systems which emitted contaminants and pollutants into the air including volatile gases such as benzene, toluene, and xylene. Erie Coke Corporation was a plant regulated by federal and state statutes and regulations including the Clean Air Act (CAA) administered by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PADEP), which was located adjacent to numerous private residences, public facilities, and several schools.
Nearhoof was an operator and “responsible corporate officer” at the plant when hazardous air pollutants were being released and directed other plant supervisors and foremen to vent combustion gases directly into the air to avoid the plant’s environmental monitoring system.
“It is important to protect our community from environmental health hazards and to ensure equal access to a healthy environment in which to live, learn, and work,” said U.S. Attorney Chung. “This indictment demonstrates our ongoing commitment to securing environmental justice by holding Erie Coke Corporation and its management responsible for violations of laws meant to protect the environment and the community.”
“Today’s indictment holds Erie Coke Corporation and its management responsible for covering up and lying to federal regulators and the public about their discharges,” said Jennifer Lynn, Special Agent in Charge for the Mid-Central Area Branch. “Through thorough investigative efforts by EPA and its state partner, we were able to uncover the fraudulent scheme.”
The law provides for a maximum total sentence of not more than five years in prison, a fine of $250,000,00, and a term of supervised release of not more than three years. Under the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, the actual sentence imposed would be based upon the seriousness of the offense and the prior criminal history, if any, of the defendant.
Assistant United States Attorneys Nicole Vasquez Schmitt and Michael L. Ivory, and Special Assistant United States Attorneys Perry D. McDaniel and Martin Harrell are prosecuting this case on behalf of the government.
The United States Environmental Protection Agency conducted the investigation leading to the Indictment in this case.
An Indictment is an accusation. A defendant is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty.
If you believe you are a victim in this case and would like to opt-in to receive case notifications, submit a victim impact statement, or if you have any questions about your rights, please visit https://www.justice.gov/usao-wdpa/vw/us-v-erie-coke-corporation. Updated December 15, 2022.
Department of Environmental Protection announces new investigation for Erie Coke
January 25, 2022 – The commonwealth is getting ready to retake the lead at the former Erie Coke property. The demolition site and cleanup have been handled by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency since 2020.
Erie Coke Update
July 14, 2021 – For months, environmental cleanup teams worked at the Erie Coke site, rarely seeing or hearing from the company that owns the once-busy property. That was until a couple months ago, when the Erie Coke Corporation said it wanted to cut timber on the land and pocket the profits.
The idea of timbering raised concerns among environmental agencies, and it raised eyebrows among community members who have heard nothing from the company since it closed the plant in 2019.
Erie Coke: What’s Next?
May 21, 2021 – In Phase 1, hazardous waste and materials are removed from the plant. The latest update from Environmental Protection noted that over 25,000 pounds of solid waste and 2,000 gallons of liquid waste were disposed of in the first week of May alone. What is in the second phase? Inspection – around every inch of the property. Campbell says this part of the project is expected to begin in the spring of 2022.
Although it isn’t considered Phase 3, the steps after Phase 2 would allow for the plant to be re-purposed or sold, depending on buyers. However, that still is a long way off.
Erie coke plant suddenly closes after 186 years
December 20, 2019 – Officials said Erie Coke claimed it could not come into compliance with city rules that recently banned the company from using the sewage treatment plant for its waste. The meeting ended with no good news for workers, dashing hopes that somehow the closing of the plant could be averted and jobs saved.
Erie coke plant shuts down amid mounting pollution concerns
December 19, 2019 — ERIE — A coke plant abruptly shut down Thursday morning amid mounting regulatory pressure over its environmental record. Erie Coke Corp. employed more than 130 people at the plant, which uses coal to produce foundry coke, a key ingredient in the steelmaking process. Workers who showed up at the plant to begin their shifts were turned away. Erie Coke said in a statement later Thursday that it was “discontinuing operations.” The company blamed the city of Erie’s recent decision to block Erie Coke from discharging its wastewater through the municipal sewer system.
The city’s crackdown came after Pennsylvania environmental officials denied the renewal of the company’s operating permit and took legal action in an effort to get the plant shutdown, citing years of environmental violations. The company has paid millions of dollars in fines for violating state and federal air quality laws. Erie Coke had operated 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
September 30, 2019 – When Campbell reached the fence line for the Erie Coke plant, the 64-year-old college biology professor and part-time activist saw a red smokestack and an area where workers bring coal. He picked up a smell.
More than a year ago, Campbell and other members of a group called Hold Erie Coke Accountable launched a public campaign to put increased pressure on the plant — and state regulators. In July, the state Department of Environmental Protection denied the company’s application to renew an operating permit and filed a complaint in the Erie County Court of Common Pleas to shut it down. DEP said the plant was unable or unwilling to comply with state and federal law.
The plant was nearly shut down in 2010 for what a state regulator called a “pattern of defiant behavior and complete disregard for the health of our citizens and the quality of our natural resources.”
A judge allowed the plant to remain open. DEP says a court-ordered settlement required the plant to pay a $4 million fine and make upgrades to address pollution.
But problems at the plant have continued.
In May, the department put increased pressure on the plant, saying it had nearly 80 unresolved air violations over two years. That includes what the DEP calls visible emissions — the smoke was too thick.
Separately, DEP estimates that over 30,000 gallons of wastewater from the plant was improperly released at the end of March. DEP suspects that wastewater included several harmful chemicals, including benzene and cyanide.
In late 2017, Campbell joined a stakeholders group created by the DEP as part of a permit renewal process for Erie Coke. Campbell joined. So did Pat Lupo, a Benedictine sister.
May 22, 2019 – From pop songs to t-shirts to coffee mugs, it seems like everywhere we look in our stressed-out society, we’re encouraged to just breathe. Though it can feel frivolous to focus on an involuntary process, something happens when we breathe with more awareness. Time slows, tension eases, and the next moment feels better than the last.
Numerous studies have likewise found that breathing well delivers measurable positive health outcomes. Medical personnel who might otherwise eschew alternative healing practices have incorporated breathing into their treatment plans.
But breathing polluted air has been shown in numerous studies to create myriad public health issues. At the Erie Coke Plant Community Impact Update in April, Rachel Filippini, executive director of Group Against Smog and Pollution (GASP) told a crowd about studies showing that “air pollution is linked to impaired judgment, mental health problems, poorer performance in school and higher levels of crime.” She added that “New research shows air pollution also affects us socially through decreased productivity, school attendance, and lifetime earnings.”
In one recent study, researchers concluded that air pollution — particularly from carbon monoxide and particulate matter — had a “significant negative effect” on the ability of Major League Baseball umpires to make accurate calls.
The researchers found that “short-term exposure to air pollution affects the work performance of a group of highly skilled, quality-focused employees.” They conclude, “Recent evidence points to the effect that air pollution may have on how well people do their work. If detrimental impacts are significant in size and sufficiently widespread, then the economic burden associated with such effects could rival the direct health effects.”
Filippini also emphasized that poor air quality may discourage people and companies from moving to a region, and that young people may not choose to stay here — a central point repeated by Hold Erie Coke Accountable (HECA).
Nevertheless, in the Erie Times-News, you may have seen this late-April headline: “Erie region among cleanest in air report.”
Health and Environmental Effects of Particulate Matter (PM)
The size of particles is directly linked to their potential for causing health problems. Small particles less than 10 micrometers in diameter pose the greatest problems, because they can get deep into your lungs, and some may even get into your bloodstream.
Exposure to such particles can affect both your lungs and your heart. Numerous scientific studies have linked particle pollution exposure to a variety of problems, including:
- premature death in people with heart or lung disease
- nonfatal heart attacks
- irregular heartbeat
- aggravated asthma
- decreased lung function
- increased respiratory symptoms, such as irritation of the airways, coughing or difficulty breathing.
People with heart or lung diseases, children, and older adults are the most likely to be affected by particle pollution exposure.
US EPA Particulate Matter (PM) Pollution
- AirNow can help you monitor air quality near you, and protect yourself and your family from elevated PM levels.
And then there’s hydrogen sulfide.
How Can Hydrogen Sulfide Affect My Health?
You are not likely to have health effects if you are exposed to typical environmental concentrations of hydrogen sulfide. You can have respiratory and neurological effects if you are exposed to higher concentrations of hydrogen sulfide, at least 100 times higher than typical environmental levels. The effects can include:
- Eye irritation
- Nose irritation
- Throat irritation
- Difficulty breathing in people with asthma
- Poor memory
- Balance problems
If you are exposed to very high concentrations of hydrogen sulfide, you may have severe problems breathing even if you do not have a pre-existing respiratory condition. You could lose consciousness if you are briefly exposed to very high concentrations (more than 1 million times higher than the amount typically found in the environment). If this happens, you may regain consciousness without any other effects. However, some people may have longer lasting effects such as headaches, poor attention span, poor memory, and poor motor function.ATSDR – Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry
March 1, 2017 – This is a story about Erie Coke Corporation (ECC), at the foot of East Avenue. Except that it’s also a story about Tonawanda Coke Corporation (TCC). The connections outweigh the differences.
Both sites have released more carcinogenic benzene into their surrounding communities than is deemed legal or safe. For years. Both sites have battled with federal and state environmental agencies. For years.
And both communities have struggled to connect the dots.
Their websites are nearly identical, though Tonawanda’s says “Quality through Consistency,” and Erie’s reads “Quality through Consistency and Commitment.” Lucky us.
Both sites commenced coke operations around a century ago.
IN OTHER NEWS
In 2008, USA TODAY released “The Smokestack Effect: Toxic Air and America’s Schools.” The widely acclaimed, award-winning report singled out Wayne Middle School in Erie as one where benzene levels were especially high.
But a follow-up report released in February of 2009 by the Pennsylvania DEP concluded, “From their single sample, USA TODAY ranked Wayne Middle School as one which may have unacceptable health risks to the student. However sampling by DEP for the stated pollutants of concern (benzene and naphthalene) does not indicate an unacceptable risk to the students attending the school.”
“Acceptable risk” is somewhat encouraging. Unfortunately, this study was performed before Erie Coke’s more recent benzene emissions violations.
Also unfortunately, the school is not the only place where health concerns are well-founded. In June of 2010, Mark Sommer of The Buffalo News visited Queen Street, near Erie Coke.
“Nine,” Sommer wrote. “That’s the number of people who have contracted cancer on Queen Street, a single block of 15 houses located near the Erie Coke plant.
“The tally by longtime residents Steve and Chris Narusewicz includes their 19-year-old daughter, Sara, diagnosed last year with papillary thyroid cancer; Steve’s father, who died from prostate cancer; and a brother who succumbed to colon cancer.
“The high incidence of cancer and other health issues near the coke foundry is one of many similarities between this plant and Tonawanda Coke,” Sommer explained.
Meanwhile, frustrated by unreliable results from outside sources, Tonawanda residents took testing matters into their own hands. [Please see “Tonawanda’s Citizen Scientists“]