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Idaho employer gets largest-ever sentence for an environmental crime
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A federal judge in Idaho has handed down the longest sentence ever imposed for an environmental crime to an Idaho mine operator who ordered his workers into a cyanide tank.
Allan Elias, 61, was ordered on Friday to serve 17 years in prison for crimes that left a former employee with permanent brain damage from cyanide poisoning.
He was also ordered to pay $6 million in restitution to the victim and his family.
Occupational Safety and Health Administration spokesman Charles N. Jeffress praised the court ruling.
"The sentence handed down today sends a clear message that employers who flagrantly disregard workers' safety will be held accountable," he said.
On May 7, 1999 a jury found that Elias had ordered his employees to enter and clean out a 25,000-gallon storage tank containing cyanide without taking precautions to protect the employees. One of the workers, Scott Dominguez, was overcome by hydrogen cyanide gas inside the tank and suffered permanent brain damage.
Safety warnings ignored
According to a U.S. Justice Department statement on the sentencing, occupational safety inspectors had repeatedly warned Elias about the dangers of cyanide and explained the precautions he must take before sending his employees into the tank, including giving workers protective gear.
Despite those warnings, Elias ordered his employees into the tanks in August of 1996, wearing only jeans and T-shirts. They were to clean out the cyanide waste from one of his mining operations.
According to the Justice Department, many of the workers came to Elias after one day of work inside the tank and complained of sore throats. They asked him to test the air for toxic gas and to issue protective gear. Elias refused, and ordered the employees back into the tank for a second day. Dominguez collapsed early that morning.
Steve Herman of the Environmental Protection Agency said the severe sentence was justified.
"(Elias) showed absolutely no regard for the safety of his workers or for the protection of the environment," he said. "The severe injury inflicted upon the victim is a sad reminder of what can happen when our environmental laws are abused, and we rededicate ourselves to the vigorous prosecution of such violations."
Older sentence eclipsed
Elias was convicted of three counts of violating the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, one count of knowingly endangering his employees and two separate counts of illegally disposing of hazardous cyanide waste.
Elias was also convicted of making a false statement to OSHA. In addition to the $6 million that Elias was ordered to pay the victim, he was also ordered to pay $400,000 to clean up the site.
"No sentence can ever restore what Scott and his family have lost," said First Assistant U.S. Attorney Terry Derden in Idaho of the victim. "I hope they will take some comfort in knowing that Mr. Elias will pay dearly for crimes, and that others may be protected from a similar fate by the court's action today."
Friday's 17-year sentence eclipses a 13-year prison term ordered last year in a Florida case.
Elias also faces a civil case filed by the Dominguez family. That case goes to trial in November.
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