Idaho Man Given Longest-Ever Sentence for Environmental Crime

An Idaho man to serve 17 years in prison and pay $6 million for his crimes that left a 20-year-old employee with permanent brain\r\ndamage from cyanide poisoning.

In the longest sentence ever imposed for an environmental crime, a federal judge has ordered an Idaho man to serve 17 years in prison for his crimes that left a 20-year-old employee with permanent brain damage from cyanide poisoning.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, Allan Elias also was ordered to pay $6 million in restitution to the victim and his family.

In May 1999, a jury in Pocatello, Idaho, found that Elias ordered employees of Evergreen Resources, a fertilizer manufacturing company he owned, to enter and clean out a 25,000-gallon storage tank containing cyanide without taking required precautions to protect his employees.

Scott Dominguez, an Evergreen Resources employee, was overcome by hydrogen cyanide gas while cleaning the tank and sustained permanent brain damage as a result of cyanide poisoning.

"There is no excuse for the human tragedy in this case," said Lois J. Schiffer, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department''s Environment and Natural Resources Division. "This unprecedented sentence leaves no question that environmental crimes are real crimes, and those who flout our environmental laws will go to prison for a long time. We are pleased because the court ordered the defendant to pay significant restitution to help the victim."

Over a period of two days in August 1996, Elias directed his employees -- wearing only jeans and T-shirts -- to enter a 11-foot-high, 36-foot-long storage tank and clean out cyanide waste from a mining operation he owned.

Elias did not first test the material inside the tank for its toxicity, nor did he determine the amount of toxic gases present.

After the first day of working inside the tank, several employees met with Elias and told him that working in the tank was giving them sore throats, which is an early sign of exposure to hydrogen cyanide gas.

The employees asked Elias to test the air in the tank for toxic gases and bring them protective gear, which is required by OSHA and which was available to the defendant free of charge in this case.

Elias did not provide the protective gear, and he ordered the employees to go back into the tank, falsely assuring them that he would get them the equipment they needed.

Later that morning, Dominguez collapsed inside the tank and he could not be rescued for nearly an hour because Elias also had not given his employees the required rescue equipment.

"Workers have the right to safe and healthful workplaces," said OSHA Administrator Charles N. Jeffress. "The sentence handed down sends a clear message that employers who flagrantly disregard workers'' safety will be held accountable."

The defendant was also convicted of making a false statement to OSHA by fabricating and backdating a safety plan for entering the storage tank containing cyanide.

Elias told rescue workers and emergency room personnel that the storage tank contained nothing that could injure employees, and he specifically denied that cyanide was in the tank.

The day after Dominguez was critically injured, Elias prepared a backdated safety permit that falsely state that employees had been given safety gear before they entered the tank.

"This defendant showed absolutely no regard for the safety of his workers or for the protection of the environment," said Steve Herman, assistant administrator for EPA''s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance. "The severe injury inflicted upon the victim is a sad reminder of what can happen when our environmental laws are abused, and we rededicate ourselves to the vigorous prosecution of such violations."

by Virginia Sutcliffe

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