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Wednesday, September 7, 2016

District of Columbia Man Pleads Guilty to Environmental Crime

Developer Admits Improperly Removing Asbestos from Historic Building

James Powers, 59, of Washington, D.C., pleaded guilty today to violating the Clean Air Act for his role in a scheme to improperly remove asbestos from a historic building in the District of Columbia.

The guilty plea, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, was announced by Assistant Attorney General John C. Cruden, head of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division, U.S. Attorney Channing D. Phillips of the District of Columbia and Acting Special Agent in Charge Jennifer Lynn of the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) criminal enforcement program in the Mid-Atlantic States. 

Asbestos, a once-popular fireproofing insulation, is now known to cause lung cancer, asbestosis and mesothelioma in people who inhale the fibers released when asbestos is disturbed.  Congress has determined that there is no safe level of exposure to asbestos.  The Clean Air Act requires that renovation in asbestos-containing properties follow specific protocols designed to safely remove asbestos from the property prior to any renovation or demolition activity, so as not to expose workers to the risk of deadly respiratory diseases.

“Our nation’s Clean Air Act requires strict adherence to the practices that protect the public from exposure to asbestos and includes criminal liability for those who do not comply with the law,” said Assistant Attorney General Cruden.  “This prosecution is part of the Justice Department’s continuing commitment to protect the public and workers who are particularly vulnerable to harm from irresponsible, unsafe and illegal practices in the work place.” 

“James Powers put a work crew and the public at risk by not taking the proper steps to safely renovate a building containing asbestos,” said U.S. Attorney Phillips.  “The Clean Air Act specifically establishes standards for the safe handling of this dangerous material.  This prosecution holds this businessman accountable for his recklessness and shows we will enforce laws that protect the health and safety of workers and citizens in the District of Columbia.”

“Exposure to asbestos poses serious risks to public health and our communities, so it’s imperative that it be handled properly and disposed of safely,” said Acting Special Agent in Charge Lynn.  “This case demonstrates EPA and its law enforcement partners will hold accountable those who put the public at risk through unsafe practices.”

The development project at issue involved renovating the historic Friendship House, located at 619 D Street SE in Washington, D.C., into condominiums, a development known as the Maples.  According to a statement of offense submitted as part of the guilty plea, in March 2010, Powers formed a partnership with a local real estate development firm to purchase and renovate the property.  An asbestos survey of the property documented asbestos throughout the property, including in floor tiles, wall board and pipe insulation.

After the survey, the partnership received bids from licensed professional asbestos abatement and renovation firms in the area.  Despite knowing that the building contained asbestos, Powers hired Larry Miller, 58, of Palmetto, Georgia, a general contractor from Atlanta with no training, certification, or experience in asbestos abatement, to conduct interior demolition and renovation of the building.  The written contract with Miller specifically excluded removal of asbestos from the property.  Powers told Miller that the asbestos would be abated by another contractor after Miller’s work and did not fully inform Miller about the extent of asbestos in the property.  Powers represented to his partners that a qualified entity would conduct appropriate asbestos abatement at the property. He emailed them a proposed asbestos abatement contract from a corporation that, unbeknownst to his partners, was simply an alter-ego for Powers.

During the period between August 2011 and October 2011, according to the statement of offense, Miller and his crew of workers conducted interior demolition at the Maples, without any asbestos abatement having occurred as required under the Clean Air Act.  Powers also contracted with a waste disposal company to haul construction debris from the Maples off-site.  Powers failed to inform the waste disposal company that the construction debris contained asbestos and the debris was not taken to a site qualified to receive asbestos waste.

Even after an inspection by local environmental authorities revealed asbestos in the building, Powers had Miller and his crew members proceed with demolition.  Over the course of the project, the workers disturbed substantial quantities of asbestos, exposing themselves to a substantial risk of serious illness later in life.

U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson for the District of Columbia scheduled sentencing for Dec. 16.  The charge carries a statutory maximum of five years in prison and potential financial penalties.

Miller pleaded guilty on Nov. 19, 2015, to one count of negligent endangerment under the Clean Air Act.  He is awaiting sentencing in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.  The charge carries a maximum sentence of not more than one year of imprisonment, a fine of up to $100,000 and a term of supervised release and/or probation.

After the acts described in the statement of offense, a licensed asbestos abatement firm conducted abatement at the Maples.  The District of Columbia Department of the Environment subsequently conducted inspections and found the property to be free of all asbestos-containing materials.

In announcing the plea, Assistant Attorney General Cruden, U.S. Attorney Phillips and Acting Special Agent in Charge Lynn expressed appreciation for the work performed by Special Agents from EPA and the Department of Transportation.  They also acknowledged the efforts of Trial Attorney Cassandra J. Barnum and Paralegal Specialist Cynthia Longmire of the Environmental Crimes Section and those who worked on the case at the U.S. Attorney’s Office, including Paralegal Specialists Kaitlyn Krueger, former Paralegal Specialists Krishawn Graham and John Lowell and former Assistant U.S. Attorney Jonathan Hooks and Assistant U.S. Attorneys Virginia Cheatham and Zia Faruqui.

Topic(s): 
Environment
Press Release Number: 
16-1013
Updated September 7, 2016