Worker's, neighbor's, children's health risked? Chattanooga asbestos case heading to jury
CHATTANOOGA (WRCB) -- A federal jury must decide whether three Chattanooga businessmen, one of their companies, and a cleanup company with whom one is associated, conspired to defraud the government, violate the Clean Air Act, made false statements, and obstructed justice in a failed effort to demolish part of the Standard Coosa Thatcher (SCT) textile plant for salvage.
Over the course of two weeks, trial testimony alleged that such actions risked the health of salvage workers, neighbors and staffers and children at a nearby day care center by exposing them to dangerous levels of asbestos particles.
In closing arguments Wednesday, prosecutors allege that Don Fillers, James Mathis, David Wood, the Watkins Street Project and Mathis Companies Inc. knew, or should have known, that the building contained three-to-seven times the asbestos than was first estimated -- but did little to nothing to prevent cancer-and lung-disease causing particles from getting into the air.
"How can the defendants say they didn't know there was more asbestos," Assistant U.S. Attorney Todd Gleason asked the jury. "The numbers are in their own documents!"
Tuesday, jurors heard from Bettye Gaston Spratling, who worked at the Pro Re Bono Day Care Center only a block away from the salvage site. She testified that she would see dust and particles in the air as workers tore apart one of the SCT buildings to salvage the bricks and wood flooring.
Spratling declined to speak to Eyewitness News on camera Wednesday. But she says that her training as a nurse, and her knowledge of the age of SCT's buildings, told her that asbestos likely was present, and that it would be dangerous.
"We wouldn't let the children play outside during any of it," Spratling says. "Every day, the windows would be coated, my car would be coated. My son would wash it off with a hose every day."
The Center's overseer, Akiko Bass, has not returned phone calls seeking comment. But Phil Acord, a member of the Board of Directors who gained oversight of Pro Re Bono in late 2005, says nobody was made aware of the potential risk until regulators with the federal EPA and the Chattanooga- Hamilton County Air Pollution Control Board shut down the project for violations.
"There's a bunch of em' (behind that demolition)", neighbor James Wint. says. "I don't know all of em!"
Wint claims he was among those hired for the demolition. He was not one of the two crew members called to testify, but he confirms prosecutors' assertions that the defendants hired homeless people and day laborers 'on the cheap' and provided them with no training or protective equipment.
"(David Wood) would say, I hired Jim because he'll do anything I say," Wint tells Eyewitness News. "That's why I pay him $10 a day."
Wint says he quit after two days when his regular medication caused digestive problems that made work difficult.
"Do I think I breathed in any of that stuff," Wint repeats our question. "Well, I probably did because I sweeped (sic) the floor and raised the dust. My job was to sweep and do anything I was told."
Prosecutors showed jurors documents indicating that Fillers, Wood and Mathis expected to reap at least $600,000 from their salvage operations, while spending little more than $20,000 to abate asbestos. Those cost estimates ballooned as contractors' bids determined that the levels of asbestos, in square feet and linear feet, had been under-estimated.
Defense attorneys have sought to shift much of the blame to the Air Pollution Control Bureau, alleging that overseer Kathy Jones failed to provide their clients with adequate information regarding federal Clean Air Act regulations, and the required permits.
"What's the saying, figures lie and liars figure," Fillers' attorney Martin Levitt tells jurors. "There's a big difference between civilly liable (for cleanup) and criminally liable (causing the problem)."
"None of this rises to proof beyond a reasonable doubt."
Prior to closing arguments, lawyers spent much of Wednesday morning and afternoon arguing over the wording of 52 pages of instructions jurors must consider regarding the various charges. The eight women and four men empanelled must reach a unanimous verdict to find any of three men guilty of conspiracy charges.
Conviction could yield five-year prison terms and $250,000 fines. Fillers risks twenty years in prison if found guilty of obstruction of justice.