One Sitka employee remembers Rick Rushing as a "nice boss," even though he was convicted of knowingly exposing workers to cancer-causing asbestos and telling them to lie to inspectors about it later.
Rushing, owner of Technic Services of Anchorage, recently was sentenced to almost five years in prison and fined $520,000 for violating environmental laws and obstructing a federal investigation into the 1996 asbestos cleanup at the Alaska Pulp Co. mill in Sitka. The mill had closed two years earlier.
Rushing's company also was fined $600,000 during a Jan. 12 sentencing by U.S. District Court Judge H. Russel Holland.
"I liked the guy, he was a nice boss," Sitka resident Richard Biggs said. "When the state was trying to sue the company, Rick said he'd countersue and if we'd cooperate and won, we'd all get a piece of the winnings like one big family."
All the employees got was a free trip to Anchorage to testify at Rushing's trial and the stigma of working on a botched cleanup.
Rushing was convicted in October of knowingly exposing his employees to high levels of asbestos, falsifying records of personal air monitors and directing workers to flush chemicals, asbestos and antifreeze down drains that emptied into Silver Bay, the arm of Sitka Sound near the mill.
"It's not easy getting a job after you tell them you were a foreman on a job like this," said Biggs, who has bounced from job to job, from janitor to carpenter, since the asbestos abatement project.
Rushing hired about a dozen workers, half of them from Sitka.
The employees, who were trained to remove asbestos, became suspicious when the contractor started cutting with a power saw and blasting with a high-pressure hose. The "rip and tear job," as employees described it, resulted in significant releases of hazardous asbestos fibers, which can cause lung cancer if inhaled.
Prosecutor Tim Burgess said two employees "tested" the company by intentionally overloading their personal air monitors.
"When they saw the results posted in the break room showing very little or no level (of asbestos), they realized it was not an honest company," said Burgess, an assistant U.S. attorney. "These two employees left the job."
Sitka resident Reiko Phillips stayed, even though her wage $15 an hour was about half of what she made on other asbestos projects. She also knew the contractor was endangering workers and the environment.
"He didn't care what had to be done to get the job done as soon as possible," Phillips said. "If we disagreed on something, we were out the door and this is a very small town where jobs are hard to find."
Paul Nangle, Rushing's attorney, could not be reached for comment. Another lawyer in his firm said the company has a policy of not discussing ongoing litigation with the media. Calls to Rushing's company in Anchorage were not returned.
Nangle argued in court that his client was the victim of "bad politics" in Sitka. He told Judge Holland that Rushing did not violate environmental laws and was not involved in the day-to-day cleanup.
A videotape taken by an Anchorage employee showed otherwise. The tape, a key piece of evidence at the week-long trial, showed Rushing using a power saw and dropping large chunks of asbestos more than 50 feet to the floor, creating plumes of asbestos dust.
The employee gave the tape to the Environmental Protection Agency.
"Asbestos abatement is time-consuming and expensive when done correctly," said U.S. Attorney Robert Bundy. "These convictions and sentences are a result of greed and a complete disregard for the health of TSI's employees as well as the environment."
Judge Holland sentenced Rushing to 57 months in prison, followed by three years of supervised release. While on probation, he must inform a probation officer and the EPA of any work on asbestos removal.
After 20 years in the business, Phillips said she's finished with asbestos abatement projects.
"This is not the first time that an outfit has used and abused workers," she said. "If an example had to be made to show these fly-by-night companies, then I think that's good."
Burgess called the case a tragedy, with employees "cajoled or bullied" into breaking laws and endangering their health.
"It's not a matter of knowing what we're doing is wrong, it's a matter of collecting a paycheck to support your family," said Biggs, who is married and has two young children. "Now I'll have to take a physical once a year to check for scarring in the lungs, and it's coming out of my pocket."
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Mike Sica can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.