Guilty verdict rendered in federal asbestos trial in Chattanooga

Guilty verdict rendered in federal asbestos trial in Chattanooga

January 31st, 2012 by Pam Sohn in News

James Mathis, accompanied by his wife, leaves the Federal Courthouse on Friday afternoon. Mathis, along with Donald Fillers and David Wood, is facing charges related to violations of the Clean Air Act. The 11-count indictment, which also names two associated corporations, charges the men with crimes related to asbestos removal and demolition.

Photo by Jake Daniels/Times Free Press.

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

A federal jury Monday convicted three Chattanoogans of polluting an East Chattanooga community with asbestos during the demolition of an old textile mill.

Don Fillers, James Mathis and David Wood now face federal prison time for conspiracy and violations of the U.S. Clean Air Act.

"I think it sends a clear message that people who would intentionally mishandle asbestos and endanger public health will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law," said Bob Colby, executive director of the Chattanooga Hamilton County Air Pollution Control Bureau.

William Killian, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Tennessee in charge of the prosecutors who tried the case, said the case was important to prosecute "because pollution of this nature is pollution that can cause disease. There were children and elderly people and others exposed to these fibers for some period of time."

Witnesses in the three-week trial told jurors that asbestos littered the demolition site between August 2004 and December 2005, creating dust that blew throughout the area of 17th Street between Watkins and Dodds avenues where the Standard Coosa Thatcher plant once stood.

The plant was on the same block as a day care center, and East Side Elementary School is nearby.

Asbestos, once used extensively in insulation and pipe wraps, is a substance the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says causes lung cancer, mesothelioma and asbestosis when its fibers are crumbling or pulverized. EPA has determined there is no safe-level of exposure to airborne asbestos fibers.

Prosecutors argued the case was about greed because properly removing the asbestos ate into a $600,000 profit the men expected.

Defense attorneys argued that the three would not "knowingly" disturb asbestos and expose themselves to it. The attorneys implied that regulators might have stopped the exposures with more questions and better enforcement.

"I think the jury's verdict speaks for itself," said Colby.

Fillers, Mathis and Wood face a maximum of five years imprisonment on the conspiracy and asbestos removal violations. Fillers also faces a maximum of 20 years on a charge of obstruction of justice.

The three are to be sentenced by U.S. District Judge Curtis L. Collier on June 7.

Fillers and Wood declined comment after the verdicts were read just before lunch.

Mathis said, "God is good. And he will vindicate me."

Hallie McFadden, Mathis' attorney, said she expects the cases to be appealed.

Leslie Cory, Fillers' attorney, said Fillers may appeal.

"The first thing we have to do is prepare for the sentencing hearing," she said.

She said she'll ask the judge to consider the question of what her client did "knowingly or unknowingly."

The jury found the defendants guilty on all counts save one minor one against Mathis: failure to have a trained asbestos individual on site. He alone was found not guilty on that count.

Fillers' company, Watkins Street Project, also was found guilty in the case. Similar charges against Mathis' company, Mathis Cos. Inc., were dismissed on a recommendation from prosecutors.

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