By ERIC FREEDMAN
Capital News Service
LANSING – Three people face possible prison terms after pleading guilty to illegally removing asbestos from a former Southwest Michigan power plant.
They also agreed to reimburse the federal government for the approximately $1 million that the Environmental Protection Agency spent to clean up the contaminated facility in Kalamazoo County’s Comstock Township.
Investigators believe the case “may be the largest asbestos release in Michigan since it was declared a hazardous air pollutant in 1971,” the U.S. Attorney’s office in Grand Rapids said.
The trio’s illegal activity, spanning more than a year in 2011-12, imperiled the environment as well as the health of the public and laborers on the project, according to the EPA.
Scientists have linked asbestos to serious health dangers such as lung cancer, mesothelioma, asbestosis and nonmalignant lung disorders.
When federal agents obtained a warrant to search the decommissioned facility, they discovered “substantial amounts of asbestos-containing material had been illegally removed and thrown onto the floor or placed in hundreds of unlabeled plastic garbage bags,” a court document said.
According to the plea agreements, LuAnne LaBrie of Kalamazoo, Cory Hammond of Hastings and Robert White of Kalamazoo agreed to salvage “valuable material” from the facility, sell it to recyclers and split the profits.
Although the trio knew there was insulation containing asbestos on pipes and elsewhere in the building, they violated the Clean Air Act by failing to notify the EPA and state about the work and failed to properly handle the material to prevent release of asbestos particles, the U.S. Attorney’s office said.
LaBrie headed a company called B&B Enterprises and Environmental LLC that owned the facility, and she visited the site regularly while the work was underway. White and Hammond were the on-site supervisors of the salvage operation.
Court documents didn’t specify the number of laborers who worked on the operation and were exposed to asbestos, and the U.S. Attorney’s office said it couldn’t comment on that until after sentencing.
The trio grossed about $1.7 million from sale of the recyclable material before EPA shut down the operation, court documents show. Under their arrangement, LaBrie was to receive 70 percent of the profits and White and Hammond were to divvy up the other 30 percent.
In a separate but related case, LaBrie has pleaded guilty to two charges of failing to file her 2011 and 2012 federal tax returns on time to report the $1.7 million in gross income.
She’s scheduled for sentencing in April. White and Hammond face sentencing in July.
The maximum penalty for the Clean Air Act violation is five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
Investigators came from the IRS and Michigan Department of Natural Resources as well as the EPA.
Consumers Energy began running the power plant in 1939 and sold it in 1983, the company said.
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By ERIC FREEDMAN