Robert Knapp, 60, of Des Moines, Iowa, was indicted in a US District court with eleven counts of violating the federal Clean Air Act. Mr. Knapp and his project supervisor, Russell Coco, 50, face criminal indictment for their roles in failing to abide by regulations governing the removal, transport and disposal of asbestos-containing material while they worked on the Equitable Building in Des Moines.
A spokesperson for the US Department of Justice said that federal prosecutors have pursued more than fifty such cases over the last five years, including the current case against Mr. Knapp. Mr. Knapp has also been the target of an investigation by the state Department of Natural Resources after they received an anonymous tip regarding his company’s practices regarding asbestos remediation projects.
Both Mr. Knapp and Mr. Coco are expected to plead not guilty to the charges. Mr. Knapp told a local newspaper reporter that he did not feel that the charges were warranted. He said that he did not see the need to provide workers with the required protective equipment or use the precautions mandated by federal regulations. He said he believed that the results of the investigations are “goofy” and that the older buildings his company remodeled only had “minute” traces of asbestos.
Last year, Mr. Knapp agreed to pay a fine of $500,000 to Iowa authorities for improperly disposing of asbestos during the Equitable Building project, a state record at that time. However, he will still face charges in federal court for violating the provisions of the Clean Air Act regarding asbestos removal. If he is convicted on all eleven counts, he could be sentenced to more than fifty years in prison and more than $2.5 million in fines.
Federal authorities stated that the indictments against the two men resulted from observing them participate and oversee demolition operations on several floors of the historic structure in downtown Des Moines. For more than two years, according to the indictment, workers removed asbestos from the walls and ceilings with saws, scrapers and other hand tools, leaving clouds of the dangerous fibers hovering in the air around the workspace.
The indictment also alleges that workers discovered more than two hundred feet of asbestos material used as insulation for the building’s pipes, along with one hundred sixty square feet in another portion of the site. Federal regulations state that such numbers require an inspection by the state’s environmental protection department and the use of special protective gear and breathing masks for any employees who will be handling and moving the material. The regulations also state that such work must be carried out prior to any demolition process.
Another portion of the indictment stated that the two men discussed the results of an inspection by officials with the state Department of Natural Resources. They reportedly talked about whether or not a building plan for the site, which would have mentioned the presence of asbestos, was still in the company’s files. Mr. Coco allegedly told one of his workers that, if the plan was still in the office, “get rid of it.”
The latest legal troubles for Mr. Knapp and his company have compounded his recent financial difficulties. In 2005, he purchased the Equitable Building for $5 million in an effort to convert the site into a premium condominium complex and retail space. Mr. Knapp’s primary business had been developing and operating various hotel and residential properties.
Sources: Des Moines Register, WQAD