When it comes to asbestos removal, companies face a double jeopardy.
Not only is asbestos a human health hazard, complying with the complex regulations governing its removal can lead to a heap of trouble.
Even when a company is trying to do the right thing, it can wind up in the middle of a lawsuit.
This is what happened when Alaska Pulp Corp. solicited bids to remove asbestos from its 50-year-old Sitka, Alaska plant, located on an idyllic stretch of coastline.
Technik Services Inc. (TSI) won the contract, and in its proposal the company said it could be trusted to comply with the complicated and often confusing regulations governing asbestos removal.
Earlier this month, EPA announced that TSI and its owner Rick Rushing were each convicted on one count of violating the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act.
In addition, Rushing faces up to five years in prison and hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines for obstruction of justice.
When an unannounced inspection exposed TSI''s improper asbestos removal practices, Rushing encouraged his employees to lie to the inspectors.
Tim Burgess, assistant U.S. attorney who handled the case, expressed sympathy for Alaska Pulp Corp.
"They knew they had an asbestos problem, and they tried to do the right thing," said Burgess. "But in the end they unwittingly hired a company that goes and does a ''rip and tear job'' -- these are not my words, but the words of witnesses."
Burgess said Alaska Pulp Corp. was not charged in the criminal case, but that may be small consolation.
According to EPA, in 1996 TSI employees, at Rushing''s direction, knocked asbestos off pipes and boilers with high power fire hoses, washed the contaminated water down drains, and dropped dry asbestos insulation from heights of 60 feet, creating clouds of asbestos dust.
As a result, workers were exposed to significant amounts of hazardous asbestos fibers, a known cause of lung cancer and asbestosis.
In a failed effort to protect himself and his company from regulators, Rushing encouraged his workers to turn off personal air monitoring devices.
The unannounced inspection took place when an Alaska Department of Labor inspector saw what TSI was doing at another site in Sitka.
After the inspection, Rushing asked his employees to sign false statements that none of the contaminated water was washed down the drain.
"What was unusual about this case," said Burgess, "is that this industrial plant has storm drains that empty directly into the ocean." He said he did not know what affect asbestos has on aquatic life.
The lawyer representing Rushing said he had no comment on the case, other than to say the conviction would be appealed.
by James Nash