This February, we saw a federal judge crack down on the reckless and negligent handling of asbestos removal by a Pillsbury plant owner based in Springfield, Illinois. Joseph J. Chernis IV was sentenced to 3 years and 1 month in prison for the illegal removal of asbestos at his plant.
Placing the Public at Risk of Asbestos Exposure
Placing workers and the public in danger, Chernis first violated federal clean air regulations when he let untrained workers remove asbestos from a former Pillsbury mill. The asbestos was then stored in uncovered containers, along with plastic bags and cardboard boxes. When a different lawsuit was filed by the state of Illinois regarding these violations, Chernis allegedly lied about the removal and storage of asbestos at the mill. The presence of asbestos at the Pillsbury mill endangered not only the disposal workers but the community at large.
Springfield’s Fire Marshal Chris Richmond stated:
“The site has a significant past history, other than the ownership, of folks in the community breaking into or trespassing in that facility for a variety of purposes. In some cases, it’s been young folks, juveniles, curious about an old factory complex.”
Although Chernis was not charged on all of the counts brought against him, he ultimately pleaded guilty to one count each of illegal asbestos removal, demolition and disposal. The way the defendant’s actions impacted the community were taken into consideration by the judge when determining the sentence. Attorney Crystal Correa’s comments about the mill’s proximity to the court building, a park and high school proved impactful in the sentencing decisions.
Historic Case Law and Legal Precedent for Asbestos Cases
Chernis’ so-called “callous disregard” for his community, as formulated by Judge Sue Myerscough, may serve a better purpose in its prompting of valuable case law that can be cited in the future. Although the health risks associated with asbestos are now widely recognized and understood, there are still far too many cases of negligent employers failing to adequately protect their employees from these hazards. While this may be due simply to a lack of proper education about asbestos’ health risks, cases like this one signal that, from a legal enforcement perspective, we are moving in the right direction.
If education and public health awareness are not enough to ensure all employers take the risks of asbestos seriously, perhaps cases like Chernis’ will be a sufficient deterrent. This case will play a valuable role in public health by setting more legal precedent for similar cases that may arise in the future. There is no longer any excuse or ignorance to be claimed when it comes to asbestos exposure at the hands of companies and employers.
The Pillsbury plant case paves the way for any other employers who knowingly expose their workers to asbestos, or fail to take adequate safety precautions, to be charged accordingly.
A Cautionary Tale for Employers Nationwide
While the hope, of course, is that cases like this will become less and less common, the value of Chernis’ sentence cannot be understated. If certain employers are not given incentive to protect their workers, negligence is more likely to occur. The solidification of rulings like this into case law will provide the necessary incentive to ensure asbestos safety is a top priority.
Although it’s impossible to know the extent of the health damage caused by Chernis’ negligence, it’s clear that any time he serves won’t change the danger he placed his community in. What we do know is that this sentencing is a sign to employers nationwide that their workers’ health and lives should always come first.