Dan Desler says he’s innocent after arrest on air pollution charges

Local businessman Dan Desler says he is innocent of air pollution charges that resulted in his arrest on May 11.

Desler, 65, is the managing trustee and founder of Western Oregon States Land Reliance Trust, which owns the former Willamette Industries property, located at the east end of Tamarack Street and north end of 24th Avenue.

A Linn County Grand Jury on April 22 indicted Desler on seven counts of first-degree unlawful air pollution, three counts of second-degree unlawful air pollution, providing false information to the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality and recklessly endangering another person, Deputy District Attorney Heidi Sternhagen said.

The charges stem from the demolition of buildings containing asbestos at an old Willamette Industries mill site in Sweet Home.

The first-degree air pollution charges are felonies, Sternhagen said. The charge is “unranked,” which means it could include no jail time to possible prison time, with a maximum fine of up to $250,000.

Desler is scheduled for arraignment on the charges on May 27, she said. There, he will be given a copy of the indictment, and he will enter a plea and be given another court date, probably about a month later to discuss the possibility of early resolution.

The case revolves around seven buildings on the former Willamette Industries site that Desler paid to have demolished between May 2007 and February 2008, Sternhagen said.

The demolition started in June 2007 and ended in February 2008 after the demolition contractor discovered asbestos, according to Dottie Boyd, an inspector with the DEQ air quality office in Salem. That contractor was not allowed back on the site.

Desler called in the Staton Company of Eugene to haul away the rubble, she said. A certified asbestos inspector who worked for Staton collected the initial samples and contacted Boyd in April 2008, she said.

Staton detected asbestos twice in the buildings, she said. Later sampling detected more asbestos.

“We wanted the owner to hire an abatement contractor and get it going,” Boyd said, and Desler hired one in April.

Staton informed Desler he needed to get an abatement, Desler said. “We hired a licensed abatement contractor (CRS) who was basically required to follow the law.”

Desler said the contractor attempted to abate the asbestos but the bank financing the operation was taken over by the FDIC, and with the cloud of DEQ enforcement constantly looming, “no lender in the world would want to touch us.”

The work went on hold in May, and nothing has happened since then, Boyd said. Asbestos remains at the site.

After she completed her investigation, Boyd forwarded the case to the DEQ’s enforcement office, which then turned to the Trooper Craig Ball of the Oregon State Police’s special investigations unit, environmental crimes, who also worked with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on the case.

The case eventually was turned over to Sternhagen.

“Ultimately, the Oregon State Police and the EPA came to me with their investigation,” she said.

The Eugene Register-Guard published a story on May 10 outlining lawsuits, DEQ action, the asbestos issue and a state Department of Justice investigation into the WSLRT foundation, she said.

Sternhagen said the timing of the arrest and the appearance of that story were coincidental and that she did not know about the story until the day of the arrest.

The charges stem from the alleged demolition of multiple buildings containing asbestos without first abating the asbestos or conducting a survey, Boyd said.

The DEQ regulates six forms of asbestos, basically any material with more than 1 percent asbestos by weight, she said, and the regulation carries licensing requirements for contractors working with the material.

“Asbestos is a known cancer-causing material,” Boyd said. “And there’s no safe level of exposure to it.”

Released on May 11 after posting 10 percent of a $100,000 bail, Desler told The New Era he was not aware of the asbestos problem before it was discovered during the demolition.

A Willamette Industries report from around 1985 identified “encapsulated” asbestos in the roofing and floor tiles, he said.

The DEQ informed him that type of asbestos in the roofing, which is not “friable,” was exempt and could be placed in a landfill, he said. When friable, asbestos can become airborne when crumbling or burned.

That is why asbestos was a concern following an arson fire on the property in 2004, he said.

But Desler was not aware of the “transite” material, which contains asbestos, located under the roofing in the older section around the dry kilns, he said.

In any case, Desler said, the metal scrapper working on the demolition was not instructed to tear that building down but went into that building after aluminum.

The roofing material also should have been taken off but not crushed, Desler said.

“At that point the damage was done,” he said, and he let the demolition contractor go, calling in Staton and then CRS for testing and abatement.

Apparently, there was no final inspection for the Willamette Industries report, he said, and the record is incomplete with the DEQ. Some material is marked “non-asbestos,” which the DEQ says contains asbestos.

“I’ve been honest,” Desler said. “I’ve been up-front with these people.”

The demolition stopped when the transite material was discovered, and his intent has always been to comply 100 percent, he said.

The arrest follows a year of mounting problems for Desler, WSLRT and Western Renewable Resource, a company in which he is a managing partner.

Western Renewable faces lawsuits from multiple creditors, including a $1.3 million lawsuit by Umpqua Bank. WSLRT owes four years, $250,000, of property taxes to Linn County and is now facing foreclosure proceedings. The DEQ has levied $192,000 in fines against Western Renewable, also naming Desler and WSLRT, for allegedly operating a solid waste disposal site without a permit.

Western Renewable stockpiled and processed cardboard fibers from Weyerhaeuser and then sold the fibers for use as hog fuel and animal bedding. Last year, the DEQ required Western Renewable to stop processing the material at 2210 Tamarack St. and at 28389 Hwy. 20, west of Sweet Home, and the city revoked its conditional use permit.

That effectively shut down the company, Desler said, and it cost jobs in the Sweet Home community.

“If it hadn’t been for the DEQ coming in making unreasonable demands with no scientific basis, we’d still have 25 jobs,” Desler said, and the business would be shipping product overseas.

“We were in business until the DEQ shut us down €“ sure, we were struggling,” he said. “It’s a bad day when a state agency isn’t there to solve a problem. It’s a terrible situation, but I’ve not run away from this project for nine years.”

He said he has received $35,000 in reimbursements over the past nine years, but his compensation has been deferred.

He has even loaned the company several hundred thousand dollars, he said.

He hasn’t made anything from those businesses, he said, and over the years, he has cleaned up much of the property.

“I’m feeling crucified when my intentions have been to see this community thrive,” Desler said. “I still say we didn’t do anything wrong, and we’re going to be vindicated. I believe we’ll be exonerated, and this is a ridiculous way to resolve a problem.

“I may be guilty of making mistakes or misinterpreting technical information, but we never intended anything other than complying with rules and regulations.”

Desler’s attorney, Michael Vergamini, did not return phone calls prior to press time.

The EPA superfund energy response unit will handle the cleanup of the asbestos, Boyd said.

Dan Heister, on-scene coordinator for the EPA, toured the site with Desler approximately three weeks ago, he said, identifying asbestos-laden material requiring cleanup.

The property did have asbestos-containing concrete, but not much of it was friable, Heister said, adding that if left outside in its current condition, the concrete will become a concern.

Heister said he left a document with Desler to sign and give permission for the EPA to access the property and clean up the asbestos, but that Desler has not returned the document to him yet.

“I am working on the paperwork I need to do in advance,” Heister said.

He said he hopes to be working on the property by the beginning of June and that the cleanup will take three weeks to a month to finish.

Who ends up paying for the cleanup is a question for EPA lawyers to work out, Heister said. His role is to go in and assess whether the asbestos poses a threat and require cleaning up.

In his judgment, it does, Heister said.

“The point the federal government gets involved, it means the state has given up getting the response of the potentially responsible party,” he said.