Weekly Feature

2014-03-26 / Editorial

Justice was not served, but message was sent

Bee Editorial

Was justice served? Last week, a federal judge determined Tonawanda Coke should pay for violating federal laws protecting citizens’ right to clean air.

Tonawanda Coke, for its many years spewing toxic chemicals into the air, will have to pay $25 million in fines, with half of those monies going to funding two in-depth studies examining even further the impacts of the River Road company on the areas surrounding it.

Yet what does justice look like for a woman who is dying of breast cancer? For a girl who discovers she will never be able to have children? For a man gasping for breath because his lungs are riddled with disease? For a person who’s watched a loved one die a painful death? True justice for them would be a full and complete restoration of their health. But this is something they will never see. For the rest of their lives they will deal with Tonawanda Coke’s decision to put profits over people. These people will never see justice, because what was done to them was despicable, and to speak of this as some kind of redemption for the ways they’ve been wronged is not right. Not one penny of that money will be going back into their pockets to pay for the monstrous health bills many of them must pay.

Judge William Skretny did not deliver justice last week in the courtroom downtown. That is, at this point, impossible. What he did do is send a strong message to industries not only in Tonawanda but across the country: To poison the public, and to repeatedly cover it up, is unacceptable. The fine Skretny imposed is among the largest ever levied in an air pollution case involving a federal criminal trial.

And it all started with a woman and a bucket. Nearly a decade ago, resident Jackie James-Creedon questioned the origin of her fibromyalgia. She had a hunch it was connected to the nearby Tonawanda Coke plant. She rallied the community in a grassroots effort to fight the business polluting their neighborhoods, their bodies. It is because of James-Creedon, who, over the years, involved state and federal agencies in her work, that Tonawanda Coke received the sentencing it did last week. It is because of her this message is being sent to other industries. She, and others in the community, worked long, worked hard and worked tirelessly against a corporation much larger and wealthier than they.

In the end, they won. But the work, says James-Creedon, is not done. Funding for the two in-depth studies is being funneled into the community, where it belongs. And it will be used to help residents even more.

“The story is not completely over,” she said. “But I do feel quite a bit of resolution.”

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