published Tuesday, January 10th, 2012

Federal case involves illegal asbestos removal from former Chattanooga textile site

A legal notice sign at the 1700 block of Watkins Road at the site of the Standard Coosa Thatcher textile plant, advises residents who were affected by the unsafe removal of asbestos when the plant was demolished to seek legal council and attend court proceedings.
A legal notice sign at the 1700 block of Watkins Road at the site of the Standard Coosa Thatcher textile plant, advises residents who were affected by the unsafe removal of asbestos when the plant was demolished to seek legal council and attend court proceedings.
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10-count indictment against Donald Fillers, David Wood, James Mathis, Mathis Companies Inc. and Watkins Street Project Inc.
10-count indictment against Donald Fillers, David Wood, James Mathis, Mathis Companies Inc. and Watkins Street Project Inc.

Federal prosecutors allege that businessmen and supervisors motivated by greed violated federal asbestos laws while demolishing a closed Chattanooga textile mill, then lied to cover up the violations.

"This case is about greed," Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Morris told the jury during his opening statement Monday afternoon.

But the defendants' attorneys place much of the blame for the illegal asbestos removal with the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Air Pollution Control Bureau.

Mathis summarized much of the 23-page, 10-count indictment against Donald Fillers, David Wood, James Mathis, Mathis Companies Inc. and Watkins Street Project Inc. to the jury.

The defendants are charged with conspiracy to defraud the United States, Clean Air Act violations, false statements, obstruction of justice and aiding and abetting.

He alleged that each of the defendants failed to remove the asbestos properly or turned in incomplete surveys to obtain permits before demolishing the Standard Coosa Thatcher Textile Plant on Watkins Street between August 2004 and December 2005.

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral used widely for decades in many construction materials. When pulverized, its long-strand particles cannot be filtered by the human respiratory system. The accumulation of these fibers has been shown to cause severe respiratory illnesses such as mesothelioma, lung scarring and other diseases, according to court testimony by Pamela McIlvaine, an EPA asbestos inspector.

Martin Levitt, attorney for Donald Fillers, and the other attorneys focused much of their opening statements Monday on whether their clients knew the operation violated federal law on asbestos removal.

Levitt focused on Kathy Jones, the air monitoring manager of the Chattanooga/Hamilton County Air Pollution Control Bureau who issued a permit for demolition of the Standard plant based on information provided by the facility owners.

"Because she didn't do her job in 2004, everything else falls and she has to justify her not doing her job," Levitt told the jury.

Jones, who still works for the pollution bureau, is on the witness list for the trial.

Gary and Donald Fillers, along with other family members, formed the Watkins Street Project company to purchase the dozen buildings of the Standard plant on the 1700 block of Watkins Street in 2003, according to court documents. The purpose of forming the corporation was to salvage valuable lumber and metal in the closed textile plant.

Gary Fillers pleaded guilty in this case to conspiracy to defraud the United States in 2009 and was placed on supervised probation. He is listed as a witness for the prosecution in the current proceedings.

As part of the state and federal requirements for demolishing the site, the owners were to have the buildings inspected for asbestos and then have the asbestos removed by certified supervisors and workers under Environmental Protection Agency guidelines.

Between July 2003 and September 2004, the defendants had the site inspected by three asbestos abatement companies -- Alternative Actions Inc., SCI Remediation Inc. and Battlefield Abatement Inc. The companies quoted the following prices for abatement to the owners: $214,650, $129,250 and $126,542, respectively, according to court documents.

The companies were not used to remove the asbestos and untrained workers were used instead, prosecutors say.

Donald Fillers and Mathis provided partial reports to Air Pollution Control in order to obtain the permits for demolition, according to the prosecution. The asbestos was removed "without wetting with knives, chisels, saws, forklifts and by hand ... and disposed off-site at facilities not authorized to accept asbestos," according to court documents.

Donald Fillers and site supervisor Wood hired "untrained and unlicensed day laborers, homeless people," according to court documents. The workers did not have safety equipment and were paid $6 an hour, documents state.

The trial, estimated by attorneys to take another nine days, resumes this morning.

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about Todd South...

Todd South covers courts, poverty, technology, military and veterans for the Times Free Press. He has worked at the paper since 2008 and previously covered crime and safety in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia. Todd’s hometown is Dodge City, Kan. He served five years in the U.S. Marine Corps and deployed to Iraq before returning to school for his journalism degree from the University of Georgia. Todd previously worked at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. Contact ...

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