Seawitch Salvage was located on the Patapsco River across the river from Fort McHenry, in Baltimore, Maryland. Headed by Kerry L. Ellis, Seawitch is engaged in the ship salvaging and scrapping business.
Seawitch Salvage contracted to demolish and scrap two decommissioned U.S. Navy vessels, the USS Illusive, a minesweeper and the USS Coral Sea, an aircraft carrier. As part of the contract, the company was required to properly remove all asbestos and other hazardous materials from the ships prior to dismantling them. Despite the fact that neither Ellis nor Seawitch was licensed to engage in asbestos abatement and demolition activities, the company directed their employees to strip and remove asbestos material from the ships in violation of the Clean Air Act. This work was done between May, 1993 and September, 1995 in violation of National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAP) regulations. The NESHAP standards, which the defendants allegedly violated, include "work practice" and disposal standards which are designed to prevent the release of hazardous asbestos fibers into the environment.
Ellis and Seawitch were required to submit periodic progress reports to the Defense Reutilization & Marketing Agency (DRMS), the branch of the U.S. Department of Defense responsible for the sale of the decommissioned U.S. Navy vessels. Ellis submitted a false statement to DRMS concerning asbestos removal from the Coral Sea. Ellis and Seawitch discharged oil, construction debris, paint chips, metal fragments, insulation materials and other pollutants into the Patapsco River in violation of the Clean Water Act and the Refuse Act.
In the process of scrapping two former US Navy warships, Seawitch Salvage dumped oil, construction debris, paint chips and metal fragments into the Patapsco River and ordered workers to handle asbestos without safety equipment or proper licensing. By early 1996 the Coral Sea was a fiasco of bankruptcy, lawsuits, worker injuries, toxic spills, and outright criminality. The Coral Sea's end was marked by fires and dumping of oil into the harbor, by lawsuits and repeated delays, and by the mishandling of asbestos.
On the Coral Sea project, as the result of a search and seizure conducted by the NCIS and EPA, it was learned that some inspectors and workmen incorrectly believed that calcium silicate (a nearly identical twin to asbestos), actually was asbestos. As this problem was identified, the technique for handling it was changed. From that point on, any material which could be construed by anyone to be asbestos (no matter what their role or status), was handled and disposed of as though it was actually asbestos, thus eliminating any confusion or misconception. This obviously was a very cost prohibitive change to make in an ongoing project, but was made nonetheless, well over a year before anyone was indicted.
Ellis and his company were convicted by a federal jury in May 1997 in the nation's first criminal case involving environmental violations by the ship-scrapping industry. Ellis and Seawitch were fined $ 50,000 each. The federal case against Seawitch Salvage Inc., landed the company's owner in prison.
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