published Thursday, January 19th, 2012

Defense lawyers grill air quality regulators, contractors in Chattanooga asbestos case

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    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
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Attorneys for defendants accused of asbestos pollution tried to put local air regulators on trial Wednesday.

For much of the day in U.S. District Court, five defense attorneys fought to keep out of evidence the field notes and reports by asbestos coordinator Kathy Jones with the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Air Pollution Control Bureau.

Those notes indicate continuing confusion about the amount of asbestos estimated at the site by different people. The notes also show that lab tests on three samples of white material found at the demolished Standard Coosa Thatcher contained hazardous asbestos.

The defense attorneys also hammered at Jones, a prosecution witness, about whether she did her job properly and about her motivations in handling the asbestos violations alleged against property owner Donald Fillers, Fillers' employee David Wood, demolition contractor James Mathis, Mathis Cos. Inc. and Watkins Street Project Inc.

The three men and two companies are charged with conspiracy to defraud the United States, Clean Air Act violations, false statements, obstruction of justice and aiding and abetting.

"In three years you never inspected this site [until after the demolition]?" asked Fillers' attorney Martin Levitt.

No, Jones answered. "I'm only required to do 25 percent of the [asbestos abatement application] sites," she said.

Levitt and other defense attorneys asked over and over why she did not review a copy of the original certified asbestos survey. That survey contained removal estimates of asbestos far higher than the differing amounts Jones said were provided to her by demolition contractor James Mathis, abatement contractor Herbert Warden and property owner Don Fillers.

"I normally review surveys. On this job I did not," she said, noting that she is not "required" to see a survey, and she forgot to ask Fillers about it during a phone conversation. Then, she said, she couldn't reach him again.

"So you have had trouble in the past with all three of the contractors on this huge project but you didn't ever inspect [or follow through?]" Levitt demanded. "Isn't it true that you're afraid of being fired" if the case falls through, he continued.

"No," she said.

In previous testimony, jurors heard that Jones had said Warden "has a reputation" for hiring uncertified asbestos workers. She also acknowledged that she talked with a state regulator recently about possible state sanctions in a different case against Mike Gray, the contractor who wrote the original asbestos estimate survey. And she acknowledged that she knew of other concerns involving Mathis, the demolition contractor.

Warden testified last week that he believed his workers were certified, though an EPA investigator found their Hispanic names did not match the Social Security numbers on the information Warden's company provided.

Gray testified last week that he was unaware until the trial that he may face sanctions. Mathis has not testified to date.

Wilson Edward Meadows Jr. told jurors he worked on the demolition site as a sweeper for about three months when the pallet business he operates with his father was slow.

For about $7.50 or $8 an hour, he said, he helped remove dust and debris from the site, using his own paper and cardboard mask "for allergies." He said neither he nor other demolition workers had respirators.

"I asked once or twice what was the stuff. The response was 'Don't worry about it,'" said Meadows, a two-time, honorably discharged war veteran who served in Kuwait.

Meadows said he would not have worked there had he known the material was asbestos.

Skeeter Pritchett, 64, testified he worked in his family construction business next door to Standard Coosa Thatcher during the demolition. He said he saw dust and debris he suspected was asbestos.

Pritchett said he complained to Fillers and to Fillers' worker David Wood, whom Pritchett saw operating heavy machinery to break the building apart during the demolition.

He said he asked them if they needed the name of an abatement contractor.

Woods told him they had a contractor, and they were trying to clean the site up, Pritchett said.

Fillers "just shrugged," Pritchett said.

The trial will continue with more prosecution witnesses today.

about Pam Sohn...

Pam Sohn has been reporting or editing Chattanooga news for 25 years. A Walden’s Ridge native, she began her journalism career with a 10-year stint at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. She came to the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 1999 after working at the Chattanooga Times for 14 years. She has been a city editor, Sunday editor, wire editor, projects team leader and assistant lifestyle editor. As a reporter, she also has covered the police, ...

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