By Neale Gulley
BUFFALO, NY (Reuters) - Federal prosecutors on Wednesday kicked off its case in western New York against Tonawanda Coke Corp, which is accused of illegally polluting the air for years and trying to cover up violations of federal clean air laws.
The trial in U.S. District Court comes after local residents reported high rates of cancer and other ailments and complained about air quality near the smoke stacks at the Tonawanda factory, which produces the coal-based steel additive known as coke.
A state Department of Health study recently released found "statistically significant elevations" of cancer and birth defects among Tonawanda residents. But officials say the study does not prove the health problems are caused by local industry.
A study of air quality by the state Department of Environmental Conservation found concentrations of benzene, a known carcinogen, and formaldehyde in Tonawanda.
Tonawanda Coke faces a 19-count indictment accusing it of numerous violations of the federal Clean Air Act and obstruction of justice for an alleged cover up of plant deficiencies prior to a 2009 investigation by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Tonawanda Coke employs slightly more than 100 people at the factory in the small blue-collar suburb just north of Buffalo.
The town is roughly 10 miles from Love Canal, a neighborhood in Niagara Falls, New York that was contaminated by benzene and dioxin left by a chemical company. Love Canal residents were evacuated in 1978, and the case helped give birth to the modern environmental movement.
Prosecutors say Tonawanda released benzene into the air through a pressure relief valve but did not report the emissions to regulators.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Aaron Mango said in his opening statement that the valve was sometimes opened every half hour, sometimes every 20 minutes or sometimes left open continuously.
He also said the plant's Environmental Control Manager Mark Kamholz "used his position of control to manipulate and deceive investigators from identifying areas of non-compliance."
In the company's defense, attorney Gregory Linson said Tonawanda passed inspections for a long time and worked hard to comply with state and federal regulations which he said were constantly changing over the years.
In a 2011 interview with National Public Radio, the EPA's regional administrator Judith Enck said she believed some of Tonawanda's alleged violations should have been discovered earlier.
"If this was in, you know, an affluent city where thousands of people lived, I think there would have been more of a laser-like focus on this earlier," she said in the 2011 interview.
Following Wednesday's court session, Joyce Hogenkamp, president of Citizens United for Justice, which links attorneys with sick residents who have filed civil lawsuits against Tonawanda Coke, called the trial "a glimmer of hope for justice for the people of Tonawanda."
"People with low income here do not have the political clout to get these things looked at," she said. "Nobody would listen to them."
(Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst)