published Wednesday, January 11th, 2012

Accusations fly in Chattanooga asbestos trial

The companies involved in demolishing the Standard Coosa Thatcher textile plant are facing felony charges for conspiracy to violate the Clean Air Act when asbestos was improperly removed from site.
Staff File Photo
The companies involved in demolishing the Standard Coosa Thatcher textile plant are facing felony charges for conspiracy to violate the Clean Air Act when asbestos was improperly removed from site. Staff File Photo
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Testimony in the trial of three men and two companies facing federal charges of violating the asbestos removal laws shows three companies bid on the work, but none were hired.

Instead, day workers wearing no protection destroyed the Standard Coosa Thatcher plant in the 1700 block of Watkins Street in Chattanooga's Oak Grove community, according to court documents, and their work left a city block and sidewalks littered with broken and pulverized asbestos.

Michael Gray, president of Alternative Actions, of the three companies that bid, testified Tuesday in U.S. District Court that he prepared a detailed survey and map, listing the amount of asbestos in the old plant in 2003. He said he gave property co-owner Gary Fillers "a budget estimate" of $214,650 to remove the asbestos.

Two years later, despite two other abatement companies' lower but unaccepted bids, Gray was called back to tour the site again by the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Air Pollution Control Bureau and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, he told jurors.

This time, the site was demolished and regulators found unremoved asbestos littering the block and sidewalks, he testified.

Jurors were shown photos of cleanup workers combing the site in abatement suits and respirators.

But defense attorneys for co-owner Don Fillers, Gary Fillers' brother, their employee David Wood, demolition contractor James Mathis and the companies of Mathis Cos. and Watkins Street Projects Inc. attacked Gray. Don Fillers is the organizer and chief manager of the family-owned Watkins Street Project.

In a hearing out of the jury's view, the defense attorneys argued Gray may face sanctions from state officials for his work on the redevelopment of Steiner Apartments, a 50-unit site in the 1900 block of Chamberlain Avenue that also had asbestos issues.

Fillers' attorney Martin Levitt and Woods' attorney Eugene Shiles told Judge Curtis Collier they should be able to show the jury that asbestos removal is a complicated issue in which even Gray, portrayed by prosecutors as an expert, "has made missteps."

Retired government prosecutor Gary Humble, now the defense attorney for Watkins Street Project, said the jury should know Gray might have a fear of state sanctions "and therefore be friendly to the government."

Two other abatement contractors told jurors Tuesday that they also submitted work bids.

Robert "Bryan" Kile Jr. of Battlefield Abatement said he met with Don Fillers, toured the site and submitted his bid, $126,542.

Stephen Watson, owner of SCI Remediation, testified he was asked by Mathis to bid on the project. He toured the site, made photos and submitted a bid of $129,250 to Mathis Cos., he said.

Testimony will continue today. The trial is estimated to take another eight days.

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about Pam Sohn...

Pam Sohn has been reporting or editing Chattanooga news for 25 years. A Walden’s Ridge native, she began her journalism career with a 10-year stint at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. She came to the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 1999 after working at the Chattanooga Times for 14 years. She has been a city editor, Sunday editor, wire editor, projects team leader and assistant lifestyle editor. As a reporter, she also has covered the police, ...

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