Cleaning up nearly 224,000 square feet of asbestos-containing material at a former power plant in southern Ohio is expected to cost millions of dollars, a federal judge said Tuesday at the sentencing for the site’s onetime owner.
Mark Harris, the majority owner of the company that bought the former power plant in 2006, had directed his son and others, according to court documents, to remove the asbestos-containing material from pipes and other equipment inside the facility, which was then sold as scrap metal.
Asbestos was left scattered throughout the building and on the surrounding grounds, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
The site, in South Point, which is in Lawrence County, is about 140 miles east of Cincinnati.
When EPA officials went to the site in 2013, prosecutors said in court Tuesday, Harris’ adult son wasn’t wearing the necessary protective gear.
“Only time will tell if his son and the other workers suffer from the serious health problems common with such exposure to asbestos,” prosecutors said in documents filed in advance of the sentencing. “Harris put the financial gain of stripping the scrap metal out of the facility over both the safety of his son and the community.”
If not handled correctly, asbestos fibers when breathed become trapped in lung tissue and can cause mesothelioma, an aggressive form of cancer.
Harris, 58, who lives in Versailles, Kentucky, pleaded guilty in January in federal court in Cincinnati to a charge related to mishandling asbestos.
On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Susan Dlott sentenced him to two days in jail, 58 days of house arrest and ordered him to perform 200 hours of community service. The sentence had been agreed upon by Harris’ attorneys and prosecutors as part of the plea.
Harris’ intention when he bought the former power plant, was to convert it to one that used renewable energy – its coal-burning boilers would be replaced with boilers that burned waste wood.
In 2008, Harris commissioned an asbestos survey of the boiler rooms, which revealed nearly 224,000 square feet of materials containing asbestos, according to court documents. The survey estimated the cost of removal to be millions of dollars.
Harris’ attorneys said because of financial pressures he eventually realized that converting the plant wasn’t possible. Between 2011 and 2013, court documents say Harris, his son and others removed about 2.5 million pounds of metal from the facility and sold it.
“The asbestos was stripped from the metal while dry and left on each of the…floors of the power plant,” the documents say.
The scrap metal was sold for nearly $350,000, according to the documents.
In early August, the EPA began the cleanup. Officials say it will take about five months to remove asbestos, drums and cylinders from inside the building, along with asbestos piles and contaminated soil outside. The EPA also is expected to designate it a federal Superfund site.
Harris apologized in court Thursday.
“I basically lost all the money that I have,” he said.
Harris won’t serve the jail time because he received credit for the time he spent being processed by authorities after his plea and for meeting with U.S. Marshals officials Tuesday to set up the logistics of his sentence.
The fact that Harris has liver failure and is awaiting a transplant was taken into account when coming up with the sentence.
Late Tuesday, Harris released the following statement:
“For quite some time, I had a dream to convert an old, coal-fired industrial plant into a state-of-the-art, environmentally friendly and cleaner wood-burning, power generating facility. The goal was to bring green, renewable energy, along with economic development and hundreds of jobs to the community. I tied up my entire net worth in the project and invited many other individual, business and government partners to support the development. They did. It was to be called South Point Biomass Generation, LLC.
Unfortunately, that dream, for many reasons, took an unexpected turn. It culminated on January 28, 2019 with me voluntarily entering into an agreement with the United States Attorney and the USEPA. Today, I received my sentence from Judge Dlott.
Back in 2007/2008, with the rapid onset of the Great Recession, investments dried up, energy prices dropped and the dream we had envisioned was being threatened. Regardless, I refused to give up on the project and still believed it could succeed. The buildings on the property contained asbestos, which was the project’s responsibility and would cost millions to remove. The funds were not available to pay for the asbestos remediation. I decided to sell scrap steel from the buildings on the property in a misguided attempt to weather the economic downtown and keep the project alive. In the process, I overlooked government regulations governing the removal of asbestos and broke the law.
With this agreement and sentencing, I am accepting my responsibility and will pay my debt to society. Again, for anyone impacted by my past decisions in this matter, I apologize. I look forward to taking positive steps moving forward in the next chapter of my life.”
To read more about this article click on Cincinnati Enquirer