Federal Judge Curtis Collier, on the sixth day of a sentencing hearing in an asbestos case, on Monday handed Don Fillers a four-year prison term for his part in what his own attorney described as the "horrible debacle" on Watkins Street.
Foreman David Wood was given 20 months in prison and demolition firm owner James Mathis 18 months in connection with an inadequate abatement of asbestos that resulted in a major governmental cleanup involving the EPA and others in 2005.
The defendants were given until Nov. 16 at 2 p.m. to self-report to prison.
The judge also handed down fines and restitution in the case. The restitution amount was set at $27,899.10 each, including against the Watkins Street Project LLC.
Fillers, 64, was also assessed fines of $20,000, $2,220 and $2,224. The corporation that he and his late brother, Gary Fillers, set up to buy the old yarn plant, was fined $30,000, $2,220 and $2,224.
Attorney Gary Humble had asked that no action be taken against the corporation, saying it is insolvent and has a $300,000 mortgage it can't pay. He said the property in Ridgedale "is like a meth house. Who is ever going to pay to buy this property." He said he expects it eventually "will go back to the bank."
Prosecutor Matthew Morrison of Knoxville had asked for "significant periods of incarceration to send out the message that this can't happen. People cannot just put jobs and profits over human health."
He said the deterrent effect of the sentence was important because he said inspectors are only able to go to about 25 percent of the demolition sites where there is asbestos and others "are on the honor system." The SCT site was discovered when inspector John Schultz of the Chattanooga Hamilton County Air Pollution Control Bureau happened by.
Attorney Leslie Cory said Don Fillers "has led a very good life. It's obvious that many, many people looked up to Mr. Fillers as a role model. This has been a horrible debacle, but he has done everything in his power to rectify the damage."
Fillers told the court, "I'm sorry this has all happened. I would never do anything to harm my family, my friends and my neighbors. I just wish it hadn't happened."
Gary Fillers pleaded guilty early on and got a six-month home confinement sentence. He died about six weeks ago.
Attorney Gene Skiles said Wood "would never, ever want to harm anyone." He said if anyone faces long-range problems from handling the SCT asbestos, it is Wood.
Mathis gave a long statement in which he declared he was innocent of the charges. He said his demolition firm had been involved in numerous projects around the community without such problems. He said it was originally to be his role to hire an asbestos firm and he recommended SCI. Then he said the Fillers brothers decided on their own to go with a much-cheaper firm.
He said he pulled his firm off the site after a disagreement about a fluid found in an old tank. He said he wanted to have it tested, but the Fillers brothers said to just pour it out on the ground.
A jury convicted the defendants on Jan. 27 of conspiracy and criminal violations of the Clean Air Act, as well as obstruction of justice in relation to salvage and demolition activities at the plant.
Authorities said the "evidence proved that the defendants entered into a year-long scheme in which the plant was illegally demolished while still containing extensive amounts of asbestos. Additionally, the defendants hired day laborers and paid them low wages to improperly remove asbestos-
containing materials without following federal regulations that were intended to keep the asbestos, a known carcinogen, from becoming airborne where it could be inhaled."
“These sentences send a strong message that criminal violations of environmental laws
designed to protect human health from exposure to hazardous substances, such as asbestos, will
not be tolerated,” said U.S. Attorney Bill Killian. “Those individuals who choose to place profit over
compliance with our nation’s environmental laws will be vigorously prosecuted and brought to
“Exposure to asbestos can cause serious, even fatal, illnesses so it must be removed
safely and in accordance with the law,” said Maureen O’Mara, Special Agent in Charge of
EPA’s criminal enforcement program in Tennessee. “The defendants in this case not only lied to
authorities and tried to cover up their actions, but they also hired homeless and untrained workers
to perform the illegal asbestos removal activities, endangering both the employees and the
greater community. Today’s sentences show that those who break the law and put the public at
risk to make illegal profits will face serious consequences.”
Attorney Flores said, "Mathis was looking at 14 years when he hired me nine weeks before the sentencing hearing.
"Mathis maintains his innocence and looks forward to appeal and post-conviction relief. We hope the Court will allow him to remain on bond pending appeal."