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Going beyond monetary penalties, a federal judge in Michigan sentenced the owner of a demolition company to more than a year in prison for violating asbestos regulations—and exposing workers and residents to potentially deadly disease.
Scott Tucker, 43, who had pled guilty to the illegal handling of asbestos at projects in Ohio and Michigan, will serve a 13-month term and pay a $1,000 fine. According to charges filed by the U.S. Department of Justice, Tucker knew asbestos was present during the work but did not comply with rules intended to mitigate the risk of asbestos-related disease.
In handing down the prison term, U.S. District Judge Robert Holmes Bell said that the sentence was meant as “a message”—not only to Tucker, the owner of H&M Demolition Company in Holland, Mich., but also to others who might be inclined to cut corners and skirt asbestos-related rules.
“I am convinced that the message has to be sent out to the larger community,” said Bell. “This is not to be tolerated. This is also way out of bounds.” If he sentenced Tucker only to probation or fines, the judge added, others would “think it’s just the cost of doing business.”
With his business struggling, Tucker had taken dangerous shortcuts and exposed many—including his own workers and those living and working near the sites—to asbestos, a building material that has long been scientifically linked to diseases including lung cancer and mesothelioma, an almost always fatal cancer of the protective lining that covers many of the body’s organs.
While contractors, building owners, and others who have known of but ignored or otherwise mishandled asbestos risks have often faced civil penalties, prison sentences are rare The more common civil penalties comprise fines levied by government agencies, or verdicts or settlements obtained by attorneys who bring asbestos lawsuits on behalf of victims
The incarceration of Tucker points to lawmakers’ and the courts’ increasing frustration with those who refuse to handle asbestos properly, and in the process, put others at grave risk.
In this case, Tucker had instructed workers at a defunct lumber company’s kiln-drying building to knock asbestos panels down with an excavator, despite federal regulations that the panels be removed only by hand, carefully lowered to the ground, and kept wet until properly disposed of.
Workers told investigators that to avoid the high cost of proper asbestos disposal, Tucker had them take tons of asbestos-containing debris to a cement-recycling facility. Not only did this result in potential asbestos exposure for the recycler’s employees when the debris was crushed, but it meant that purchasers of the cement also risked asbestos exposure.
According to a sentencing memorandum filed by the U.S. Department of Justice, Tucker told workers to “keep your mouth shut” and not say anything about the project to Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality.
The demolition work, the government’s memo noted, took place near a residential neighborhood and a Home Depot store. This is particularly troubling because asbestos is most hazardous when airborne; any fibers inhaled by those nearby could put them at increased risk for asbestos-related diseases like mesothelioma, often diagnosed decades after exposure when the prognosis is usually grim.
Tucker, the father of six, will spend three years on supervised release once his prison term ends. During that period, Judge Bell said, he must seek out troubled young men and serve as a mentor. Tucker was also forced to surrender his Michigan license to do asbestos-abatement work.
In an earlier case, Tucker’s wife, Jaline, was fined $1,200 after pleading guilty to charges that she ordered workers to haul away large quantities of asbestos-containing debris, which caused asbestos dust to be released into the air.
In a letter to the judge, Tucker wrote: “My shortcomings have resulted in me and my family being in this situation. I am incarcerated. Separated from my family. I have learned a huge lesson!”
This news story was brought to you by the asbestos mesothelioma lawyers at Cooney & Conway. For more than half a century we have been advocating for, and fighting for, those who have been injured by the actions of others—including victims of asbestos exposure and the deadly diseases that result, like lung cancer and mesothelioma. We haven’t just brought our clients recovery in their asbestos lawsuits: We’ve given them answers—and justice.
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