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Environmentalists say state letting asbestos maker off easy

By Dave McKinney
Chicago Sun-Times
03/23/04

SPRINGFIELD -- A Lake County environmental group wants a judge to delay a looming settlement of a state lawsuit against Johns Manville Corp., saying the deal's possible terms could be a ''sweetheart deal'' for the former asbestos products manufacturer.

The Illinois Dunesland Preservation Society believes the company faces only slap-on-the-wrist fines of no more than $750,000 when it should be subjected to state penalties reaching $5 million for polluting Lake Michigan and Illinois Beach State Park with asbestos.

''Our intent is to get a voice in this, and make sure that they don't give away the store,'' Dunesland President Paul Kakuris said, referring to state environmental officials and the attorney general's office, which are negotiating with Johns Manville.

''They're going to charge them pennies on the dollar compared to what the fines should be,'' Kakuris said.

The group wants Lake County Judge David M. Hall to press for the maximum possible penalty against Johns Manville. It further asks him to delay a settlement until Dunesland can perform more thorough testing of a polluted lagoon system on the Johns Manville site in Waukegan and in an adjacent nature preserve, where the group found asbestos debris last year.

That find 11 months ago has not resulted in any action against Johns Manville by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. Nor has it been made part of the state suit against the company -- a pattern by the state, Dunesland maintains, of overlooking the company's poor track record.

The lawsuit against Johns Manville was originally filed in 2001 by former Attorney General Jim Ryan and has been amended, including last summer when Attorney General Lisa Madigan cited Johns Manville for 15 more environmental violations tied to its operations, which ceased in the 1990s.

Matthew Dunn, a lawyer who oversees asbestos litigation under Madigan, would not divulge how close the state and Johns Manville may be to an agreement nor confirm how much in fines the state would seek, saying only it would not be in the ''millions of dollars.''

''We generally don't discuss or negotiate our penalties in the press,'' Dunn said. ''In this matter, we've pursued the violations we believe are appropriate and sustainable. We've pursued for a, b and c, but this group also wants d and f.''

Bruce Ray, associate general counsel for Johns Manville, dismissed Dunesland's claims.

''Mr. Kakuris has been on record with these same allegations for over two years,'' Ray said. ''I don't think this is necessary. We've had the state and federal governments looking over our shoulders the whole way.''

Dunesland, which expects a Thursday hearing in Waukegan on its motions, was instrumental in last summer's shutdown of a state-leased fishing pier neighboring Johns Manville that was littered with asbestos debris. The pier remains off-limits.

The group last year released a study purporting health-threatening asbestos contamination in that area and along the expansive state park shoreline, which Dunesland said should be closed. The state ignored that recommendation.

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