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A federal victim witness advocate is alerting people about a trial in which the government claims asbestos was handled improperly and removed from the former Standard-Coosa-Thatcher plant on Watkins Street.

The trial begins in February for three defendants, while a fourth - local businessman Gary Fillers - already has pleaded guilty.

Federal officials and local air regulators are very close-mouthed about the case, except to say that they believe the salvage company owners and contractors conspired to understate the "substantial" amount of asbestos removed during the Eastside facility's demolition from August 2004 through September 2005.

A legal ad in last Sunday's Chattanooga Times Free Press sought phone calls from people who were in or near the plant during that time.

"We've got obligations under federal law to notify potential victims of crimes, to let them know of their rights," said U.S. Attorney Greg Sullivan. Two people had responded to the ad last week, he said.

Neither Mr. Sullivan nor the prosecuting attorney, Matt Morris, would comment further on the case, but the indictment states:

"Asbestos was removed without wetting with knives, chisels, saws, forklifts and by hand; thrown out of windows; swept up using brooms and loaders; pushed into open piles; stored on-site in open Dumpsters; sorted by hand; hidden in Dumpsters; transported off-site without providing for proper labeling or shipping; and disposed of off-site at facilities not authorized to accept asbestos."

Asbestos has been determined to cause lung cancer, asbestosis and mesothelioma, an invariably fatal disease. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has determined that there is no safe level of exposure to asbestos.

The indictment further states the defendants "hired untrained and unlicensed day-laborers, homeless people and other individuals" to do the work without training, proper licenses or protective equipment.

According to the court documents, co-conspirators "submitted a false 10-day notice to the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Air Pollution Control Bureau" ... (and) "substantially understated the amount of asbestos in the facility."

The defendants face up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000 or twice the gross gain or loss to the victims, according to court officials.

Mr. Fillers, a co-owner of the salvage company Watkins Street Project LLC, pleaded guilty in federal court in September. He is scheduled to be sentenced on March 18.

An indictment filed days after his plea agreement was filed also charges his brother, Donald Fillers, and their salvage company, the Watkins Street Project LLC.

Also charged on the indictment are project supervisor David Wood, contractor James Mathis and his company, Mathis Companies Inc.

They face trial Feb. 16.

Gary Fillers also was the owner of the dilapidated Parkway Towers building on Chattanooga's Southside when a teenager was paralyzed in 2005 after falling from the building while trying to photograph the Chattanooga skyline. A $12 million lawsuit was settled in 2007. That case was sealed and details of the settlement were unavailable.

What happened

* 2003 - Gary Fillers and others form the Watkins Street Project to acquire, demolish and salvage the Standard Coosa Thatcher textile plant facility in Chattanooga.

* August 2004 - A 10-day notice for asbestos removal is filed with local air regulators.

* September 2004-September 2005 - Asbestos is removed from the Standard Coosa Thatcher plant.

* Aug. 25, 2009 - A 11-count federal indictment is filed against Donald Fillers, David Wood, James Mathis, Mathis companies Inc. and Watkins Street Project, LLC. They are charged with conspiracy to defraud the government and violate the Clean Air Act, making false statements and obstruction of justice.

* Aug. 31, 2009 - A federal plea agreement is filed between Gary Fillers and U.S. attorneys.

* Jan. 10, 2010 - U.S. attorneys run a legal ad advising potential victims of the upcoming trial.

Source: Court documents

How much asbestos?

* 6,126 linear feet of pipe insulation

* 348 pipe fittings

* 4,293 square feet of equipment insulation

* 3,570 square feet of transite (hard panels)

* 1,600 square feet of floor tile/mastic

* 2,440 square feet of oven insulation

Source: Court documents

Gary Fillers' attorney, Hugh Moore, said neither he nor his client would comment on the asbestos case.

Donald Fillers' attorney, Martin Levitt, said the asbestos was disposed of appropriately.

"We've pleaded not guilty, and we're going to try it (the case)," he said.

Both Mr. Wood's attorney, Eugene Shiles, and Mr. Mathis' attorney, Hallie McFadden, declined comment.

The Fillerses formed the Watkins Street Project and bought the Standard-Coosa-Thatcher plant to sell salvage materials, according to court documents.

The indictment states the Watkins Street Project purchased every commercial building on the 1700 block "with the exception of a day care center and nursery."

David Wood was the supervisor of salvage and demolition activities, court documents show. Mr. Mathis and Mathis Cos. Inc. were contractors.

When Gary Fillers pleaded guilty, Maureen O'Mara, special agent in charge of EPA's criminal enforcement program in Atlanta, said exposure to asbestos can cause cancer and other serious respiratory diseases.

"Those who put the public health at risk will be vigorously prosecuted," she said at the time.

Bob Colby, director of the Chattanooga Hamilton County Air Pollution Control Bureau, said he is a witness in the case and cannot comment.

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