Five people who managed or owned a salvage firm that removed salvageable metals from a defunct Hamblen County plant face prison terms and $10 million in restitution for environmental crimes and negligence that likely exposed unwitting workers to asbestos, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
The five had earlier pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court to a felony count each of conspiring to violate federal laws that regulate disposal of asbestos, which can cause lung disease and increase susceptibility to some kinds of cancer.
According to the EPA, the defendants over a series of years were liable for the improper bagging and disposal of asbestos from the old Liberty Fibers plant, and they failed to provide workers the proper protection equipment. The government also alleged plant operators tried to hide the fact that improper disposal of asbestos was occurring.
U.S. District Judge Ronnie Greer imposed sentence Wednesday in Greeneville after a lengthy hearing. The government presented testimony that asbestos exposure likely posed a serious if not fatal health threat to salvage workers on site.
Assistant Attorney General John C. Cruden of the Justice Department's Environment and Natural Resources Division alleged that the five "took unacceptable and illegal risks with workers' lives and the community's health."
The five defendants were identified as Mark Sawyer, 55, of Morristown, a former A&E Salvage manager sentenced to a maximum five-year term; Newell L. Smith, 59, of Miami, Fla., a former A&E Salvage manager who was sentenced to a little more than three years in prison; A&E Salvage Manager Eric Gruenberg, 50, of Lebanon, Tenn., who got a 28-month sentence; and Armida DiSanti, 56, and Milto DiSanti, 54, also of Miami, who received six-month prison sentences to be followed by six-month sentences of home confinement.
Greer ordered the defendants to pay the restitution to reimburse the government's Superfund program, which has been used to clean up the site.
A&E bought the bankrupt plant for its salvageable metal. A&E Salvage began work at the old Liberty Fibers site in 2006.
In March 2009, the EPA ordered Sawyer and other A&E Salvage principals to immediately stop any site removal that impacted asbestos and to clean up and properly dispose of asbestos at the plant.
The government alleged at the time that the firm had violated federal asbestos disposal laws as well as a consent agreement that allowed them to work on site.
The government warned then that the company was imperiling on-site workers.
A&E was supposed to inspect the property and "develop and carry out plans for removal and proper disposal of asbestos waste materials that had been improperly disposed around the facility," according to the EPA.
EPA agents and the Tennessee Department of Environmental Conservation investigated the case, which was prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Morris and Todd W. Gleason of the environmental crimes section of the Department of Justice.