Federal trial begins for 3 accused of removing asbestos from salvage site illegally
CHATTANOOGA (WRCB)-- James Wint lives barely a block away from the old Standard Coosa-Thatcher textile mill on the 1700 block of Watkins Street in Chattanooga's Ridgedale neighborhood.
Close enough, he claims that he was among those whom David Wood hired to salvage flooring, metals and other material of value in 2005.
"He says, I'll give you a job four days a week," Wint recalls to Eyewitness News. "But I got only two days, that's it."
Regulators halted the demolition when they realized that the salvage crew had uncovered asbestos, according to an 11-count indictment from a federal grand jury.
Wood, Donald Fillers, James Mathis, and their respective companies, Mathis Companies,Inc, and Watkins Street Project, LLC, are on trial in U.S. District Court in Chattanooga, charged with violated provisions of the Clear Air Act.
Mathis and Wood could face 5-year prison terms and $250,000 fines if convicted. Property owner Donald Fillers could face 20 years in prison if convicted of obstruction of justice.
Their indictment alleges that the trio staffed their salvage crews day laborers and the homeless and failed to train or clothe them with the equipment necessary to remediate an asbestos-laden site safely.
"I didn't wear (sic) none," Wint says.
Asbestos particles have been linked to cancers and to fatal, incurable lung diseases. The federal Environmental Protection Agency has determined there is no safe level of exposure to asbestos.
"Asbestos is normally not a concern unless it's disturbed," John Schultz, an inspector with Hamilton County's Pollution Control Board told Eyewitness News in September 2005. "That releases the fibers and the fibers will go as far as the wind will carry them."
Such risks are why federal regulations require remediation crews to soak asbestos-laden material with water before removing it and taking the material off-site.
The federal indictment alleges that Coosa-Thatcher's salvage crews not only failed to soak the material, but tossed contaminated pieces out of windows and stacked it in open-air piles.
The indictment further alleges that the defendants grossly understated the levels of contamination uncovered or discovered, and that they "concealed and covered up their illegal activities by making false statements to inspectors regulators and law enforcement personnel and preparing false and fraudulent documents."
In opening arguments Monday, Fillers' attorney Martin Levitt, questioned whether his client knew the salvage operation violated federal regulations governing asbestos removal, according to reports published in the Chattanooga Times Free Press.
"Because (Pollution Control Board monitoring manager Kathy Jones) didn't do her job in 2004, everything else falls and she has to justify her not doing her job," the newspaper quoted Levitt as saying.
Levitt has not returned calls from Channel 3 seeking comment.
The Pollution Control Board has declined comment, as Jones and Schultz have been called as prosecution witnesses.
Victim Witness Advocate Amy Russell has referred all questions to the U.S. Attorney's office in Knoxville. Prosecutors had posted legal notices at the Standard Coosa Thatcher site, advising neighbors and former salvage workers that the 2005 project may have exposed them to asbestos particles.
Wint could qualify on two counts; as a neighbor, and former site remediation worker. But he maintains he has no desire to sue; either individually, or as part of a class-action.
"I'm not gonna take anybody's money," he says. "I ain't got none, so I'm not gonna take nobody's money."
Testimony is set to resume Tuesday, January 17.