EPA Not Messing Around When It Comes to Asbestos-Related Prison Sentences

Photo by daryl_mitchell. Some rights reserved.

While the EPA is often seen as soft on companies, they may be making up for it by coming down hard on individuals.

Yesterday, the EPA announced that Bobby Joe Knapp, the former owner and operator of the Equitable Building in downtown Des Moines, Iowa, would be spending more than 3 years in prison for his role in the careless removal of asbestos from the building.

By failing to notify the EPA before starting the removal process, as well as using some very shoddy demolition methods (untrained workers, workers not provided with protective equipment, failure to wet asbestos tiles), Knapp was in violation of the Clean Air Act work practice standards for the removal and disposal of asbestos. Failure to follow these procedures can expose building occupants and construction workers to high levels of the material, which can increase the risk of lung cancer.

The case was investigated by the EPA and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. Minutes from a meeting with the DNR (see page 20) paint a more vivid picture of the events that led up to the DNR referring the Equitable case to the Attorney General, including several visits to the work site and early conversations with Knapp and the building manager.

Knapp was formally charged by a federal grand jury in February of 2010. He pled guilty to the charges a year later, in March 2011, and just yesterday, U.S. District Judge James E. Gritzner sentenced Knapp to 41 months in prison, plus 300 hours of community service and more than $12,000 in fines.

He isn’t the only chap to go to jail for such a crime. On the EPA’s Criminal Enforcement page, they boast that, in FY 2010, “individual criminal defendants were sentenced to a total of 72 years of jail-time.”

It doesn’t feel right, does it?

I don’t want to diminish the seriousness of what Knapp did, nor trivialize the exposure to the building residents, but I might argue that to lavish these heavy prison sentences on an individual hardly sends the broad message one would hope for.

Spotlight-prone corporate executives that violate environmental laws rarely see the inside of a jail cell – their punishments always seem to be variations on a theme: pay up the big bucks. Bucks being one thing of which they have plenty to spare.

Knapp cut corners, endangered the health of a handful of people, and essentially had his life put on hold for three years. Corporate giant BP was found guilty for conduct that resulted in an explosion that killed 15 employees (no, not that explosion – they weren’t held criminally accountable for that), and was fined $50 million dollars in 2007. That comes to a whopping 1% of their total revenue for that fiscal year – hardly a disincentive. Where’s the jail time??

So I hope Knapp, and other building owners, have learned their lesson, and that people are scared straight into treating asbestos with care. But don’t we have bigger fish to fry?

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