By Eric Freedman
A federal grand jury in Illinois has charged a contractor with illegally and unsafely removing asbestos during a demolition project in Springfield and lying about it in court.
Joseph Chernis IV of Sherman, Illinois, the demolition manager of Midwest Demolition and Scrap Inc., faces prison and fines if convicted. He was arraigned June 7.
According to the indictment, in 2014-15 Chernis hired an untrained worker — identified only as “Confidential Informant 1” — to illegally strip asbestos pipe insulation from buildings at a vacant Pillsbury Mills / Cargill facility that had closed in 2001. He allegedly paid the informant “substantially less than a trained asbestos abatement contractor would have charged.”
Asbestos is a toxic, hazardous air pollutant linked to a variety of respiratory diseases and, as the indictment says, “The inhalation of asbestos fibers may cause debilitating or fatal diseases such as mesothelioma, asbestosis, and lung cancer.”
“The asbestos debris was stuffed into approximately 300 garbage bags and at least two open-topped cardboard boxes, and left inside vacant buildings at the facility,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office said in a press statement.
The indictment said, “As a result of the dry-removal of this asbestos pipe insulation, the floors of several buildings on the property were littered with dry pieces of asbestos-containing waste material, as was the ground in the outdoor portions of the facility. When Confidential Informant 1 removed the asbestos insulation, the removal generated a large amount of hazardous asbestos-laden dust.”
Chernis caused one of the buildings “to be demolished with more than 1,000 linear feet of asbestos pipe insulation remaining inside the structure,” according to the indictment.
On Aug. 4, 2015, a former worker on the project notified the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) about the asbestos, and the agency inspected the site two days later, according to a Pillsbury Mills Community Meeting presentation by the EPA and state attorney general in January 2016.
About a week later, a Sangamon County Circuit Court judge ordered a temporary halt to the project. At the time the civil suit was filed, the Attorney General’s Office said that “improper removal, handling and failure to dispose of asbestos-containing material has created a substantial danger to public health.”
Two months later, the county judge held Chernis in contempt of court for failing to secure the site with proper signs and failing to hire a project designer to develop an EPA-approved response plan.
According to the indictment, Chernis also made false statements under oath during a county court hearing in that civil suit.
The indictment charges that he falsely represented that he didn’t know who did the demolition work “when in truth and in fact, and as Chernis knew, he had personally participated in such demolition work, and had solicited others to assist him with that work.”
It also alleges that Chernis falsely represented that somebody else “was responsible for the activities of t Confidential Informant 1 at the facility when in truth and in fact, and as Chernis knew, it was Chernis who hired and directed the activities of Confidential Informant 1.”
In addition to Chernis, the civil suit’s defendants are his father Joseph Chernis III, who owns Midwest Demolition, that company, site owner P. Mills LL. and Keith Crain, who owns P. Mills. None of the other civil defendants were indicted in the federal criminal case.
Chernis’ defense lawyer, Mark Wycoff of Springfield, declined to comment beyond saying, “The only information known to me at this juncture is that contained within the four corners of the documents that have been filed in the case to date.”
If found guilty, Chernis faces a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine on each Clean Air Act and false statement charge, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
At the January 2016 public presentation, the EPA and Attorney General’s Office said the state’s enforcement authority is “limited to ensuring compliance with state and federal environmental laws, including cleaning up contamination caused by the defendants” in the civil suit. “Further abatement, demolition, renovation or redevelopment is up to the defendants, any subsequent owners and the city.”
A June 28 hearing is scheduled in the civil case.