"Work practice standards for the handling of asbestos exist to protect human life," said David B. Barlow, U.S. attorney for Utah.
"When companies have information that requires further investigation regarding asbestos in their building and then fail to take the necessary measures to protect their workers and the public from asbestos exposure, they will not only have to spend vast sums of money remediating the contamination, they will be prosecuted."
"Exposure to asbestos can cause cancer and other serious respiratory diseases, so demolition work must be conducted safely and legally," added Lori Hanson, who oversees the Environmental Protection Agency's criminal enforcement program in Denver. The sentence "demonstrates that those who 'cut corners' and commit environmental crimes will be prosecuted."
Max Wheeler, an attorney who represented the real estate company and entered the guilty plea on its behalf Wednesday, said asbestos in the ventilation system had been overlooked during the initial inspection of the building shortly after the company bought it in 2007.
When crews started the work, they knew about the hazardous material in floor tiles and on pipes and took proper precautions. But because they did not know about the asbestos in the ventilation system, Wheeler said, they failed to take proper precautions, as required under the law.
The attorney said the job was shut down as soon as the problem was identified. The company spent $700,000 on the asbestos remediation, he said.
"No question we made a mistake moving the material" when workers were unaware of it, he said.
The judge added a special condition of probation: ordering the company and other entities affiliated with Hamilton Partners, Inc. to conduct asbestos training for its employees in Utah and Illinois.
Wheeler called it "a good idea" that is already being explored with the help of the Utah Department of Environmental Quality. "We don't want anything like this to happen again," he said.