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Building owner sentenced to prison for asbestos violations

The owner of a Des Moines, Iowa office building was sentenced to 41 months in prison for conspiring to violate federal laws that protect workers from exposure to asbestos.


Bobby Joe Knapp, the former owner and operator of the Equitable Building in downtown Des Moines, was also fined $12,500 and ordered to pay $200 per victim to a special fund.


Knapp pleaded guilty in March to one count of conspiracy to violate the Clean Air Act and one count of failing to remove asbestos-containing material from the Equitable Building before beginning a project to renovate the top 13 floors of the 19-story structure. A co-conspirator, Russell Coco, was charged on the same two counts. Coco, who supervised the renovation project, pleaded guilty in February and was sentenced to three years probation.


The Clean Air Act requires that owners of public buildings follow federal work standards to ensure the safe removal of asbestos, including notifying the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency before starting work. The law also sets standards for the handling of asbestos and requires that the material be disposed an EPA-approved site.


In a sentencing hearing before U.S. District Judge James E. Gritzner, witnesses testified that asbestos-containing material removed from the building was disposed of in an uncovered dumpster. The testimony also showed that Knapp failed to provide demolition workers with personal protective equipment to reduce exposure to the asbestos. A worker told Gritzner that the crew was not instructed to wet building tiles containing asbestos before and during the demolition process, increasing their exposure to dust. Tenants, who continued to occupy the bottom six floors of the building during the renovation, were also put at risk.


According to the Des Moines Register, Coco knew there was asbestos in the building, and had obtained cost estimates for its removal that were subsequently rejected by Knapp.


“Knapp’s illegal conduct put at risk the health of workers who lacked basic training and protective equipment,” said Ignacia S. Moreno, Assistant Attorney General for the Environment and Natural Resources Division at the Department of Justice. “The Clean Air Act work practice standards are designed to protect people’s health from real dangers, and we will hold violators fully responsible for their actions.”


Knapp’s sentencing ends a case that began with an anonymous complaint to the Polk County Health Department in late 2007. Following an investigation by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, Knapp was ordered to cease work until a licensed abatement contractor had removed all asbestos-containing material from the building.


Knapp ignored the order, and in May 2009, he was sued by the state attorney general. Knapp agreed to pay a $500,000 civil penalty for numerous violations of federal law, including failing to inspect for asbestos, failing to provide notice to the DNR before beginning the renovation project and failing to take appropriate precautions for the handling of asbestos-containing materials.

Tags: Legal