Man Faces Jail for At-Work Dangers
SODA SPRINGS, Idaho (AP) _ The thoughts are there, somewhere behind Scott Dominguez’s largely expressionless stare.
So are the words. But only a few get out _ in a kind of muted slow-motion staccato, syllable by syllable, preceded and often interrupted by stuttered breaths. It’s difficult to listen to, all the more because it clearly is far more exasperating for him.
``I pray for myself to get 100 percent better,″ Dominguez said, nostrils flaring and tears welling up as he struggles to express the frustration of being trapped for the rest of his life in a body unable to respond to a brain ravaged by industrial cyanide poisoning.
A jury already has concluded what happened to him in August 1996 was no accident.
Dominguez was only two years out of high school in this southeastern Idaho town, where many of the 3,200 residents make their living mining rich deposits of phosphate from the nearby hills or processing it for fertilizer and other products.
Working for a small business that extracted silver from the waste produced by a processing plant, he was trying to earn some money for a future he hoped would include college.
Instead, he was overcome by hydrogen cyanide gas as he cleaned the inside of a 25,000-gallon storage tank for his employer _ a man already so well known for scores of environmental and worker safety violations that federal and state regulators speaking among themselves sometimes called him ``Idaho’s walking, talking Three Mile Island.″
Allan Elias was convicted in May. Unless U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill approves his request for a new trial, Elias is expected to be sentenced soon on federal charges of knowingly exposing Dominguez to cyanide, illegally disposing of hazardous waste and lying to investigators.
Elias, 61, faces up to 30 years in prison.
The case is the Justice Department’s only conviction of an employer for knowingly exposing a worker to hazardous waste.
``It’s the kind of frightening and harrowing tale of abusive conduct by an employer that you would expect to hear about, if at all, in another part of the world,″ said David Uhlmann, who helped prosecute Elias.
Another trial is set for Nov. 6 in state court on a lawsuit filed by Dominguez and his mother, Jackie Hamp, against Elias; the company he ran, Evergreen Resources Inc.; and Kerr-McGee Chemical Corp. and Kerr-McGee Chemical LLC, to which Elias sold Evergreen Resources in March 1995.
Dominguez’s lawyer, Brent Roche, said the trial could for the first time in Idaho result in an employer being found liable for an employee’s injuries. Worker’s compensation coverage in all other cases has foreclosed legal remedies.
Elias’s lawyer, Craig Jorgensen, did not return repeated calls from The Associated Press. Elias’s listed telephone number was disconnected, and he did not respond to a message left at his Soda Springs home. So far, Roche said, he has refused to be deposed for the civil case.
During his 3 1/2-week trial, Elias relied on a defense of denial. His silence leaves unexplained the question Dominguez said he most wants to ask: Why?
Dominguez was glad to be working for Elias, ``a pretty cool guy″ who always seemed willing to advance a little cash against his next paycheck.
Sure, there were signs of trouble. Sometimes so much sulfuric acid would spill onto his clothes while he was unloading it from railroad cars that his jeans and T-shirt would be eaten through by the end of the day. But Dominguez, unaware of the safety rules Elias had repeatedly been directed by regulators to follow, was not about to complain.
At the age of 20 _ still young and nimble enough to keep a Hacky Sack in the air for 200 kicks _ he felt invincible.
Then one day Elias ordered him to clean sludge out of an 11-foot-high, 36-foot-long steel tank that, unbeknownst to Dominguez, contained sodium cyanide and phosphoric acid. Dominguez was given no protective clothing, breathing gear or even safety training _ only a broom and a fire hose.
The chemicals that sloshed together as he washed down the tank’s walls produced the same compound that Nazis used to gas victims of their World War II death camps.
``I just remember my co-workers saying `You have to breathe,′ and I said I couldn’t,″ Dominguez said.
It was almost an hour before rescuers cut through the steel and got him out. Experts testified that the damage Dominguez suffered was compounded by treatment delays caused by Elias’s refusal to acknowledge what was in the tank.
Elias backdated a safety permit required by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, indicating employees were given safety gear before entering the tank. He also gave police a false report claiming the safety equipment was stolen.
Elias even went so far as to pay $5,000 to have former Gov. Cecil Andrus, through an intermediary, deliver to federal investigators affidavits that turned out to contain false information. Andrus said he had no idea, and authorities confirmed he was never implicated.
The site of Elias’s defunct company in Pocatello is abandoned along with up to 2,300 tons of cadmium-contaminated waste that the EPA estimates could cost up to $800,000 to remove. Cleanup of an additional 800 tons of cadmium-contaminated waste at the Evergreen Resources site is expected to cost more than $364,000.
Elias ``is somebody who has demonstrated an uncanny ability to evade responsibility for his actions through legal maneuvers, force of persuasion and false assurances to regulators,″ Uhlmann said.
Federal prosecutors want Elias’s sentence to include almost $6 million in restitution, enough to cover a lifetime of special care for Dominguez, who has made more progress than doctors expected but probably has advanced as far as he ever will.