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Woman sentenced in state's largest illegal asbestos case

Carcinogen released during scrapping of former Consumers Energy plant near Kalamazoo
Bags of improperly removed asbestos littered site of mothballed power plant in Kalamazoo County

KALAMAZOO, Mich. (WZZM) -- A Kalamazoo woman who oversaw salvage operations at a mothballed Consumers Energy plant was sentenced to three years' probation and ordered to pay restitution for what the government says may be the largest illegal asbestos release in Michigan.

Luanne LaBrie was sentenced in U.S. District Court for violating the federal Clean Air Act in a salvage operation at Consumers Energy's former Morrow plant on East Michigan Avenue in Kalamazoo County's Comstock Township.

She also was convicted of failing to file tax returns on more than $1.7 million earned by scrapping metal from the closed facility.

"This case involves the greedy pursuit of millions of dollars at the expense of the health and safety of the community,'' Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher M. O'Connor wrote in a sentencing memorandum. "The massive clean-up effort was funded by taxpayers, a fact particularly galling in a case where (LaBrie) has yet to file accurate tax returns on what she owes on her substantial profit from the crime.''

Asbestos-containing materials were illegally removed, thrown on the floor and stuffed into hundreds of plastic garbage bags, the federal government charged.

U.S. District Judge Robert Jonker ordered LaBrie to pay $897,000 in restitution in both cases. She was placed on probation for three years in each case; those terms will be served at the same time.

LaBrie and two co-defendants could be on the hook for more than $1 million the Environmental Protection Agency estimates it cost to clean up the mess. The former plant sits beside Morrow Lake, which was dredged as part of clean-up efforts following Enbridge Inc.'s July, 2010 oil spill into the Kalamazoo River

Although LaBrie did not do the work herself, she oversaw management of the property and the criminal organization, O'Connor wrote.

Workers used power tools to cut through pipes wrapped in asbestos insulation, threw debris out windows, removed insulation by hand and got rid of it without putting it in proper containers or labeling it.

Some of the workers wore street clothes, meaning asbestos fibers that landed on their clothes and shoes were transported off site.

"One laborer said that workers who wore masks were told to make a filter last an entire week rather than replace them every day, presumably to save money,'' O'Connor wrote.

The illegal handling of asbestos was "repetitive and ongoing,'' discharging the known carcinogen into the environment, O'Connor wrote.

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