Bond set for Marion leaders accused of allowing fire crews to work in asbestos filled station

MARION, SC (WBTW) –  A judge granted bond Friday morning for the two City of Marion officials indicted for allegedly knowingly allowing employees to work in an asbestos-filled fire department.

South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson signed indictments for Marion City Administrator Alan Thomas Ammons, and Marion Fire Chief Ralph Walton Cooper, III, on charges of misconduct in office, conspiracy to violate the pollution control act, and violation of the pollution control act between February and May. All indictments were filed Nov. 2.

Ammons and Cooper appeared before a judge in Marion County Friday morning, where they were each granted a $10,000 bond.

According to the indictments, Ammons and Cooper were aware that the City of Marion Fire Department building contained asbestos and “allowed fire department staff, volunteers, and members of the community to be exposed to asbestos and be present in asbestos-contaminated locations during the demolition and preparation of the City of Marion Fire Department building.”

In addition to being indicted for misconduct in office, the two city officials were indicted for conspiracy to violate the pollution act and violating the pollution control act. Officials say Ammon and Cooper “did conspire to unlawfully, directly or indirectly allow asbestos-containing waste to be discharged into the environment.

State officials go on to say the that two city officials “directly or indirectly allow[ed] asbestos-containing waste to be discharged into the environment.”

Baxley Howe was an engineer for the city, and Friday he showed News13’s Taylor Herlong his letter of resignation he just submitted because he says for the first time, he can speak openly about his fears.

“I’m worried about this horrible, horrible material staying dormant in my body for 20-25 years and then causing me a terminal illness,” said Howe.

Howe says he was exposed to asbestos in the city’s fire department, along with many others.

“Along with our family that came up, along with the community service workers that were working for different agencies, PTI, probation and parole, housing authority, the juvenile program,” said Howe.

Morgan Martin is the attorney representing Cooper, and he says his client didn’t do anything wrong.

“This was an investigation that was an investigation that was instigated apparently by some people who didn’t know what was going on,” said Martin.

Former Assistant Fire Chief Christopher Mckenzie was fired in July, just after he told Ammons and Cooper he was concerned about construction happening in the fire department and contacted DHEC.

“Once he realized I was the whistleblower, two weeks I was terminated. On my termination letter was not following the chain of command, repeatedly not following the chain of command and causing disarray of the fire station,” said Mckenzie.

Robert E. Lee is the attorney representing Ammons, and he says he doesn’t think this should be tried as a criminal case.

“I don’t think he had an intent to commit a crime, neither gentleman intended to commit a crime,” said Lee.

Hows says he knows the men knew about the problem, and he wants someone to hold accountable.

“30 years from now, if I’m diagnosed with something or my family is that we won’t be standing alone that we’ll have someone there to be held accountable for it,” said Howe.

During the arraignment in court Friday, the Attorney General’s office claimed Ammons and Cooper did not follow some or all of the four safety precautions required by law when dealing with material containing asbestos. Andy Rowland who is a certified industrial hygeinist told News13 those four requirements are as follows:

  1. make official notification to DHEC of construction/destruction work that may involve asbestos. DHEC then reviews and approves or denies the application to continue with work. Even if asbestos is found, work can continue if the remaining precautions are taken.
  2. use “wet methods” during removal of asbestos materials
  3. ensure to “visible emissions” that practice means a containment area must be built around the asbestos removal work
  4. removed asbestos materials must be put into a state licensed landfill approved to accept asbestos

Rowland is an expert in asbestos removal. He does that type of work professionally and trains others on the proper removal procedures. He said if anyone was exposed to asbestos at the Marion Fire Department it could take 10 to 40 years for symptoms to appear.

He said the most likely health problem would be mesothelioma because short and small amounts of asbestos exposure can cause it. The potential asbestos exposure at the Marion Fire Department would have been from February to May 2017 according to the indictments.
Mesothelioma is a type of cancer caused when asbestos fibers are inhaled, then get into the membrane that covers most of your internal organs. The membrane then stiffens and causes serious health complications.

Asbestos exposure can also lead to asbestosis or lung cancer, which each affect breathing differently, but they usually require larger exposure over an extended time.
Rowland said the real danger lies into how exactly the floor tiles containing asbestos were removed.

“Whether it’s being pulverized and crushed to a powder would play heavily into whether or not we feared there was a significant exposure,” Rowland said. “There’s a chance they could have exceeded that exposure limit. If they had not and it remained intact I wouldn’t expect that they would have exceeded the exposure limit.”