San Diego Judge Orders New Trial in Asbestos Case

A judge in a San Diego, California, court has ordered a new trial in the case of a San Diego utility convicted of several asbestos violations–despite protests from U.S. prosecutors and one utility’s former contractors.
Last summer, San Diego Gas and Electric was convicted on three felony counts of improper removal of asbestos and one count of perjury. One count of conspiracy to violate safety rules was eventually dropped; however, two individuals–one of whom was an employee and the other the asbestos contractor–were convicted for improper disposal of asbestos waste, which is a felony under federal statutes.

The full story was reported here at last July. Since then, there has been an appeal by SDG&E lawyers. During the appeal, Judge Dana Sabraw decided that investigators working for the federal government had “used incorrect methods” when they collected and performed tests on asbestos samples that were subsequently presented at trial as evidence. On that basis, Judge Sabraw has ordered a new criminal trial for the utility and the two workers. The individuals who may be exonerated of their conviction are David Williamson, an environmental specialist employed by SDG&E, and Kyle Rheubottom, a project supervisor for the IT Corporation, the asbestos contractor.

The case dates back seven years when SDG&E was required to remove old asbestos-insulated pipe from a property as one of the conditions of its sale to a local developer. Allegedly, specific procedures required by EPA regulations for the removal of friable (crumbling) asbestos waste were not followed. The conviction in July meant that SDG&E was liable for $2 million in fines, while Williamson and Rheubottom faced five-year prison sentences. Defense attorneys for the company appealed the decision in September of last year; Judge Sabraw made the ruling in December that will allow the retrial. Meanwhile, the prosecutor in the case, Assistant U.S. Attorney Melanie Pierson, may appeal to a higher court in an attempt to overturn Sabraw’s ruling. A hearing on the matter has been scheduled for 22 February 2008.