Artists must clean up, may avoid jail
The two owners and an employee of Bennett Sculpture entered no contest pleas recently in El Dorado County Superior Court on a total of 10 felony counts of improper disposal of hazardous waste.
Tom and Bob Bennett, the founders and owners of Bennett Sculpture in Shingle Springs each pleaded to four felony counts, and Warren Kearfott, the general manager of Bennett Sculpture, pleaded to two felony counts.
“What happens now is that the (three defendants) must submit a cleanup plan to El Dorado County Environmental Management,” said El Dorado County Deputy District Attorney Paul Sutherland, one of the prosecutors in the case. “A lot will depend on how they follow through.”
El Dorado County Superior Court Judge Gregory F. Haas is scheduled to sentence the defendants on Oct. 21. The defendants potentially could face state prison terms of up to five years, but will most likely avoid incarceration if they live up to cleanup agreements and pay fines dictated by the court.
“The county had never really prosecuted a case like this before,” said Sutherland, whose office handled the case in concert with the California State Attorney General’s Office. “One might say that we learned a lot from this.”
The Bennett case has been nearly nine years in the making. The family owned and operated a bronze sculpture foundry on Greenstone Road at the time of the alleged violations, from January 1996 to December 1998, and the indictment listed violations of California’s health and safety code for the transportation, storage and disposal of hazardous waste.
The Bennetts used fans to blow copper waste from their foundry building into the surrounding environment, resulting in copper contamination. Other violations included disposal of hazardous waste material in trash bins and plastic garbage bags.
Initial testing at the foundry was conducted in 1990, where the presence of copper contamination was confirmed.
“We have maintained throughout this litigation that the defendants failed to take meaningful steps … to eliminate the contamination they were creating,” Sutherland said. “The county tried to work with them on this for eight years.”
The Bennetts could not be reached for comment. Kearfott, who came on as general manager in 1992, described the outcome as “A misuse of the legal system.”
“The whole thing was a farce,” Kearfott said. “The total cost of the cleanup is approximately $58,000, which is nothing. In my opinion the property owner (Jim Rivers) manipulated the legal system. He played to a willing audience.”
Kearfott maintains that he could have been acquitted if he were allowed to go to trial separately.
“I felt I could have won, but the DA insisted on lumping our cases together,” Kearfott said. “I’m a corporate officer; it’s not as if I were out there throwing handfuls of copper dust into the air. I settled so that Bob and Tom could settle their case. The DA was pushing for significant prison time, and I didn’t want to jeopardize Bob and Tom.
“The three of us decided that the cleanup held a higher priority than this trial.”
Rivers now owns the former Bennett Sculpture property in Shingle Springs. Bennett Sculpture is now located in Camino and subcontracts out the actual production of their artwork. Prosecutors assert that the defendants abandoned the Shingle Springs property leaving the landowner, Rivers, with a building and property that he cannot lease or sell due to the contamination.
The drainage near the former Bennett Sculpture site runs to Slate Creek, which runs to Weber Creek and eventually drains into Folsom Lake.
Copper is one of the most soluble metals, and is very hazardous to aquatic life. Copper sulfate was used recently by the State of California in a controlled fish kill in Lake Davis.
The case was investigated primarily by the El Dorado County Office of Environmental Management and the State of California Department of Toxic Substances Control, and was jointly prosecuted by Sutherland and Deputy Attorney General William Brieger.
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