The owner of a Southern Illinois construction company was sentenced Thursday to five months in federal prison and fined $50,000 for exposing immigrant workers to asbestos during an asbestos-removal project at an Okawville school.
Joe Kehrer, owner of Kehrer Brothers Construction in Albers, had pleaded guilty in March to charges of failing to notify regulatory authorities before removing asbestos. Federal law requires that the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency be notified 10 days before removal of any potential asbestos-containing materials.
When given an opportunity to address the judge, Kehrer apologized.
“I just want to say that I’m sorry and that I take complete responsibility for mistakes that I made,” he said.
Kehrer and family members who were with him in the courtroom cried as Judge Staci M. Yandle handed down the sentence.
A Kehrer Brothers employee reached out to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration during the removal project with concerns that employees were putting their lives at risk by working with asbestos, a known carcinogen. The work was done in the spring of 2015 at an Okawville elementary school.
One employee told investigators that when OSHA inspectors came to the project, Kehrer told employees to stop their work and hide chemicals and equipment.
In August 2015, OSHA issued a $1.8 million fine against Kehrer, accusing him of using Mexican workers to remove the asbestos without safety gear, and threatening to fire them if they spoke with investigators. Kehrer contested the fine, and it wasn’t immediately clear Thursday whether OSHA’s Review Commission upheld the fine.
At the time of the OSHA fine, OSHA Assistant Secretary David Michaels called Kehrer’s behavior “outrageous.”
“They spoke no English,” Michaels said of the eight workers who were exposed to asbestos. “He drove them to jobs. He set up a housing camp for them. They were at his mercy.”
Kehrer’s defense told a different story to the judge on Thursday, arguing that Kehrer’s relationship with his workers was excellent, and that he served as a father figure for many of them, co-signing loans for them and donating money to them in times of need.
Kehrer was also acknowledged for his charitable contributions to the Southern Illinois community and his long history in construction work.
That work history, however, worked against Kehrer when Yandle sentenced him to five months in federal prison, a year of probation — five months of which will be served on house arrest — and a $50,000 fine. Yandle said Kehrer should have known better, given how long he’d worked in the business and his previous history with asbestos-removal warnings.
“You absolutely know the significance of asbestos and its removal,” she said. “You knowingly exposed workers to that serious health risk.”
Yandle said she took the government’s sentencing recommendation of one year probation into account, but she ultimately felt the recommendation did not fulfill the determent part of a federal sentence and would not do enough to prevent Kehrer or those in the general public from committing this crime again.
“I’m not a discompassionate person,” she said. “But I cannot ignore the seriousness of this.”