A federal judge on Monday sentenced Joseph J. Chernis IV of Sherman to three years and one month in prison for illegal asbestos removal at the former Pillsbury Mills plant on the north side of Springfield.

Chernis, 35, was indicted in May 2016 for violating federal clean-air regulations by allowing untrained workers to remove and store asbestos between October 2014 and August 2015 at the former mill, where authorities said asbestos was stored in open containers, plastic garbage bags and cardboard boxes. Chernis also was accused of lying about the work in a separate cleanup lawsuit filed by the state of Illinois.

As part of the plea agreement, Chernis pleaded guilty in April of last year to one count each of illegal asbestos removal, demolition and disposal, while the three other counts brought against him were dismissed. He also confessed to obstructing justice.

At the start of the sentencing hearing, Judge Sue Myerscough said she had not decided whether she would stick to the sentencing guidelines of the plea agreement. According to Myerscough, sealed sentencing commentaries recommended a higher sentence than the U.S. Attorney’s Office agreed to.

“I have grave concerns about the damage to the community in this case,” Myerscough said.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Crystal Correa pointed out the federal courts building in downtown Springfield is five minutes away from the mill, which had been full of asbestos.

″(The mill)’s near a park. It’s near Lanphier High School,” Correa said. “It’s in our community.”

Affects of asbestos when it is improperly handled and disposed of include lung cancer, mesothelioma.

Chernis said he wanted to put the episode behind him and that he would take the sentence “like a man.”

“I understand I’ve made some mistakes, some very big mistakes,” Chernis told the judge.

Myerscough noted that though Chernis showed repeated “callous disregard” for the law and the community, letters showed he had some “good” characteristics. She expressed concern for the health of the homeless man that Chernis employed to remove the asbestos and Chernis himself, who was onsite during demolition.

Myerscough did not fine Chernis. But she noted that restitution could be reached through an ongoing civil case brought by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency in Sangamon County Circuit Court.

She revealed the new price tag of the asbestos cleanup was $2.5 million; it had been previously reported to be $1.8 million. The cleanup began a year ago and lasted nine months.

However, after hearing that asbestos remains on the 18-acre property within the interiors of the buildings, Circuit Judge John Madonia has refused to lift an injunction that keeps the Chernis and his partners off the site. While the asbestos is no longer an airborne threat, scrapping operations could be considered a hazard, according to project coordinator Kevin Turner.

After the sentencing, Chernis, in an interview, called the government’s cleanup of the site a “joke.”

“I think it’s an overreaction,” Chernis said of his prosecution. “If (the asbestos) is so dangerous, why is it not yet cleaned up? How’s it safe, but you are telling me it’s still there?”

Chernis said he didn’t think anyone was harmed because the asbestos was removed improperly.

“Anybody can make an accusation, but nothing’s been proven,” Chernis said.

According to court records, Chernis’ plant owner partners are his father Joe Chernis III and another Sherman resident, Keith Crain. Both were not charged in the federal indictment. The elder Chernis was at his son’s sentencing but offered no comment.

Article Source: http://www.sj-r.com/news/20180205/chernis-gets-three-years-in-prison-in-pillsbury-asbestos-case

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