published Friday, January 20th, 2012

Witnesses describe shoddy asbestos removal during Chattanooga textile plant demolition

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
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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Testimony in a federal criminal trial Thursday focused on how unprotected workers cleared asbestos-covered debris from the site of a demolished Chattanooga textile plant.

In the sixth day of trial for three men and two businesses charged with fraud and intentional environmental regulation violations, prosecution witnesses described workers sawing insulated pipes from the ceiling to drop on the floor and a backhoe scooping up refuse into piles around the site.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Morris asked Lisa Blackburn, one of the workers hired to clean up asbestos-contaminated scrap, what kind of protective clothing she was wearing.

"None," Blackburn testified.

Pipes and other materials potentially contaminated with asbestos were heaped around the Standard Coosa Thatcher textile plant on the 1700 block of Watkins Street, Blackburn and witness Dayton Baggett testified Thursday.

Baggett was paid $20 a load to haul scrap to a local junkyard. He and other witnesses described how the site supervisor, David Wood, removed pipes from the building.

"He'd take that saw, cut them pipes down and clean them up and I'd haul it," Baggett testified.

Wood has been charged along with Donald Fillers, James Mathis, Mathis Companies Inc. and Watkins Street Project Inc. in a 10-count indictment alleging fraud, false statements, obstruction of justice, aiding and abetting and violating the U.S. Clean Air Act.

The manner in which workers discarded material from the site is key to the prosecution's case in proving violations of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations covering asbestos removal.

Baggett testified that Donald Fillers told him he was "as guilty as they were" for being around the asbestos after regulators began investigating the site.

Fillers formed the Watkins Street Project company with his brother Gary Fillers and other family members to purchase, demolish and salvage the textile plant.

Mathis' company was hired to do demolition work on the site between August 2004 and December 2005, according to court documents.

Morris and co-prosecutor Todd Gleason claim that Fillers had three companies assess the site for proper asbestos removal. Their estimates ranged from $129,000 to $214,000.

But to save money, the Fillerses had another company do smaller-scale cleanup for $28,000 and submitted partial inspections to the Chattanooga/Hamilton County Air Pollution Control Bureau, according to court documents. The bureau issued the demolition permit for the site.

In 2009, Gary Fillers pleaded guilty to a fraud charge in the case and was placed on supervised probation. He is listed as a potential prosecution witness but has not been called.

Defense attorneys claim it was the Air Pollution Control Bureau's employee, Kathy Jones, who failed to properly inspect and inform their clients before issuing the permit.

Jones testified Wednesday and defense attorneys pounded her over whether she did her job properly. They also tried to prevent her field notes and reports about asbestos at the site from being used as evidence in the trial. Some were excluded but other parts were allowed.

The trial will resume Monday. Prosecutors estimated they would finish Tuesday, then defense attorneys will have the opportunity to present their witnesses and evidence.

about Todd South...

Todd South covers courts, poverty, technology, military and veterans for the Times Free Press. He has worked at the paper since 2008 and previously covered crime and safety in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia. Todd’s hometown is Dodge City, Kan. He served five years in the U.S. Marine Corps and deployed to Iraq before returning to school for his journalism degree from the University of Georgia. Todd previously worked at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. Contact ...

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