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6th Cir. Affirms Whopping $10.4M Asbestos Cleanup Bill Against Scrapper

By Jonathan R. Tung, Esq. | Last updated on

A salvage scrapper will have to pay the full amount of some $10 million in cleaning costs to the EPA according to a recent ruling by the Sixth Circuit which affirmed the decision of a federal district court.

That lower federal appeals courts was not persuaded by defendant Mark Sawyer's theories, saying that in this case of first impression, the EPA must be compensated for its clean-up expenditures after Sawyer's company completely contaminated a 300-acre plot of land in violation of federal environmental law.

A&E Scrapping

Defendant Mark Sawyer and his partners formed the A&E Company in order to recover scrap aluminum, copper, and other recyclable commodity materials at the shut down Liberty Fibers plant in Tennessee. Demolition began in 2006, but government officials got involved with workers and began making complaints that Sawyer and other execs were not conducting the demolition and collection of asbestos fibers in compliance with on-site asbestos procedures. For example, according to court papers, some workers were not provided with safety equipment and the proper wetting of asbestos (a friable material) was skipped. This little trick landed defendants in prison.

The EPA entered into a consent agreement with A&E in which the latter agreed to clean up the site and comply with regulations, but by 2009 the EPA terminated the agreement in light of continued violations. Court papers indicate that the EPA spent some $16.25 million in cleanup of the site, all of which had been contaminated.

Sawyer's Defense

Sawyer argued in court that the EPA effectively could not bring a damages claim against him and his company because the EPA was not an injured-owner of the property; and that whatever causes of action there were, they were properly characterized as property damage counts. At the district level, the court found that Sawyer had committed violations of the Clean Air Act and was in an "offense against property." Based on this finding, Sawyer fought the EPA.

But the circuit court dismissed this argument and ruled that the EPA ought to be compensated its cleanup expenditures, noting that it would affront basic sense for the EPA to step in and clean-up the site, but for Sawyer not to foot the bill. Additionally, it found that given the facts of the case (especially the criminal aspects), Sawyer was essentially the captain of the pollution and was jointly, severally, and entirely liable for the $10.4M bill.

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