Trial set in Placerville copper contamination case
The stage is set for an important and unusual criminal trial in El Dorado County, and all that is needed now is a judge’s preliminary ruling to get things under way.
In December of 1998, the El Dorado Criminal Grand Jury indicted three officers of Bennett Sculpture on eight felony counts of improper disposal of hazardous waste. The Bennett family owned and operated a bronze sculpture foundry near Placerville at the time of the alleged violations, from January 1996 to December 1998, and the indictment alleges violations of California’s health and safety code for the transportation, storage and disposal of hazardous waste.
Tommy Lareece Bennett, Bobby Maurice Bennett and Warren Kearfott, all named in the indictment, are accused of using fans to blow waste from their foundry building on Greenstone Road into the surrounding environment, resulting in copper contamination. The county also cites alleged violations such as disposal of hazardous waste material in trash bins and plastic garbage bags.
The Bennett Sculpture case would seem to be an important one in light of El Dorado County’s storied but fragile environmental landscape. But even El Dorado County Deputy District Attorney Paul Sutherland admits that his department is venturing into unchartered territory.
“The county has really never prosecuted a case like this before,” said Sutherland, whose department is handling the case in tandem with the California State Attorney General’s Office.
“We take it very seriously when the environment is endangered, but the fact remains that this is the only case of this type in El Dorado County that I’ve heard of. We’re learning a lot.”
On March 5, El Dorado County Superior Court Judge Brendan Riley conducted a hearing on the case, and was presented with a motion to dismiss by attorneys representing the three defendants. Basis for the motion is that the grand jury was not properly instructed by the court in handing down the indictments, and that inadmissible evidence was used by investigating agencies.
Judge Riley is currently pondering the matter, but the notion that he would dismiss the case seems to be a longshot at best. If Judge Riley throws out the motion to dismiss, a trial would begin on May 15.
Representatives from Bennett Sculpture were not available for comment. Attorneys for the defendants did not return phone calls.
“This is indeed an unusual case,” said Jon Morgan, Solid Waste and Hazardous Materials director of the El Dorado County Environmental Management Agency.
“The case originated after an anonymous complaint from one of (the Bennett Sculpture) employees,” he said. “When we first investigated (in 1990, in concert with Cal-OSHA), we found all kinds of violations. They were blowing copper dust into the air, there was metal contamination in the soil … they were just complete slobs.”
Morgan said that the state and county tried to work with the Bennett Sculpture people to clean up the mess and stop the violations.
“We tried to be nice, tried to be patient,” he said. “But we kept seeing more and more violations.”
The final straw came in August 1997, said Sutherland, when the defendants prepared to move their business from Greenstone Road in Shingle Springs to nearby Camino.
“The new property owner called us to let us know that (the Bennetts) were moving, and he felt that they were going to leave this mess behind,” Sutherland said. “So we did some more testing, and our worst fears were confirmed.”
According to Sutherland, the Bennett’s abandoned building had copper contamination within the walls – in the insulation – and in the concrete floor.
“They had been blowing copper dust into the atmosphere for years,” he said. “There is a drainage nearby that runs to Weber Creek, and the bank of the drainage was a blueish-green. They had hired some kids to rake (the bank) and bag up (the contaminated dirt), but that in itself was a violation.
“We decided enough was enough.”
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 by the State of California in a controlled fish kill in Lake Davis recently.
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