published Tuesday, December 24th, 2013

Federal appeals court upholds Chattanooga asbestos convictions

James Mathis, accompanied by his wife, leaves the Federal Courthouse in this 2012 file photo.
James Mathis, accompanied by his wife, leaves the Federal Courthouse in this 2012 file photo.
Photo by Jake Daniels /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

NASHVILLE — A federal appeals court on Monday upheld the convictions of two men found guilty of violating federal environmental laws during the demolition of a Chattanooga textile mill that contained large amounts of asbestos.

James Mathis and Donald Fillers were convicted in 2012 of conspiring to violate the Clean Air Act in demolishing a textile mill without properly removing asbestos. Prosecutors said the demolition allowed asbestos, which can cause cancer and other fatal diseases, to become airborne.

Fillers was given a four-year prison sentence and fined $20,000, while Mathis was sentenced to 18 months in prison.

In challenging their convictions, both men claimed there was insufficient evidence in their case.

But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit ruled that there was plenty of sufficient evidence to convict the men, and affirmed a district court's ruling.

Particularly in the case of Fillers, the court said "ample evidence exists ... that Fillers knowingly acted with others to unlawfully remove asbestos from the site."

During the three-week trial, witnesses testified that asbestos littered the demolition site. An employee of a nearby day care facility testified that the air in the area was so contaminated that children were unable to play outside, according to court documents.

Fillers' violations include failure to wet the material containing asbestos during removal and failure to containerize and timely dispose of the material.

Owners and operators of demolition activities must give a notice -- including a description of the location and amount of asbestos -- to the Environmental Protection Agency 10 days before demolition.

Prosecutors said Mathis acted fraudulently by agreeing with Fillers to file a false 10-day notice, which vastly understated the amount of asbestos at the site.

"The jury ... had ample evidence to conclude that Mathis knowingly violated the removal requirement," the appeals court said.

Mathis' attorney did not immediately return a call to The Associated Press. However, Fillers' attorney, Leslie Cory, said she's disappointed with the ruling and planned to discuss options with her client.

"Mr. Fillers has several options," said Cory, who declined to elaborate. "I'm going to go over them with him and he'll make the final decision of what he wants to do next."

David Wood, another defendant in the case, was found guilty on similar charges and given a 20-month prison sentence.

Fillers' company, Watkins Street Project LLC, also was found guilty and ordered to pay a $30,000 fine.

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