EUGENE — Failed land developer Dan Desler put profits ahead of people’s health, assistant U.S. Attorney Amy Potter argued in a sentencing memorandum filed this week in U.S. District Court in Eugene.
Desler pleaded guilty Wednesday to one count of negligent endangerment, releasing a hazardous pollutant into the air. He admitted he should have known there was asbestos in many of the buildings at the former Willamette Industries sawmill site in Sweet Home, but allowed an unlicensed contractor to conduct demolition and renovation work.
Judge Thomas M. Coffin sentenced Desler to three years probation, five months home confinement and 300 hours of community service. He also must pay $1,589,752.52 in restitution to the Environmental Protection Agency for its removal and disposal of more than 4 million pounds of asbestos-containing materials.
In 2009, Desler was charged with failure to inspect prior to demolition or renovation, failure to provide notice and six counts of work practice standard violations in connection with work contracted at the former sawmill site. The case was originally scheduled to be heard in Linn County Circuit Court, but in 2011 was transferred to federal court.
Potter noted that Desler was the managing trustee of the Western States Land Reliance Trust, which had been gifted with the former sawmill. The trust had planned to develop 400 to 600 acres of property along the South Santiam River and construct an upscale housing development that included an artists’ and sportsmens’ complex. But over the years, the plan was altered, eventually morphing into a moderately priced housing development.
None of the plans came to fruition.
The sawmill property previously owned by Weyerhaeuser had not operated in many years. The property included several buildings in various stages of disrepair.
In 2004, a fire believed to have been caused by a transient broke out in several of the buildings. Firefighters noticed debris that appeared to contain asbestos and reported it.
An investigation by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality indicated there were asbestos-containing materials on site and notified Desler of that fact. Desler hired a licensed contractor to abate the asbestos, but work was not completed in any of the undamaged buildings.
Three years later, Desler hired an unlicensed contractor, who over eight months tore down, crushed and even chipped asbestos-containing materials.
Potter said Desler was at the site two to three times per week.
The site is near a residential area and large piles of asbestos-containing materials were left uncovered.
“This case is significant,” Potter noted in the memorandum. “Desler should have known that there was asbestos at the facility and faced with extremely high costs to conduct proper abatement, Desler took short cuts that resulted in copious amounts of asbestos being released and contaminating not only the facility but the surrounding neighborhoods. Desler attempted to advance his bottom line at the expense of people’s health.”
In December 2010, Linn County foreclosed on the property in lieu of more than $505,000 in back taxes dating to 2004.