Contractor pleads guilty to asbestos violation in Rivers federal building redevelopment

The former L. Mendel Rivers Federal Building is at 334 Meeting St.

Saying he was set up by a disgruntled former employee, the project manager for an asbestos removal project at the former L. Mendel Rivers Federal Building admitted Friday that he lied about whether his company followed strict legal requirements designed to protect the environment.

Albert Dickson, 61, pleaded guilty in federal court to a charge of knowingly making a false statement on a document required to be filed under the Clean Water Act. The charge carries a maximum two-year prison sentence and a maximum fine of $10,000. Dickson, who lives in New York, will be sentenced at a later date.

According to information filed in the case, Dickson told investigators with the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control that a water filtration system had been installed at the federal building to prevent asbestos from getting into the city’s sewer system. Investigators learned that the filtration system wasn’t installed until after they had questioned Dickson during a surprise inspection prompted by an anonymous complaint.

Investigators, during the surprise inspection conducted June 6, 2011, found open drains to the sewer system filled with asbestos material. DHEC issued a stop-work order to Dickson’s employer, Gramercy Group Inc., the next day. Gramercy later was allowed to return and finished the project that fall.

Dickson told Judge Michael Duffy that while he lied to inspectors, he ultimately was set up by a subcontractor.

“I do believe the job was sabotaged when the inspector was called in,” Dickson said during Friday’s court hearing.

Bart Daniel, Dickson’s lawyer, said a subcontractor was fired the same day the anonymous complaint was filed with DHEC and Dickson believes the fired employee made the call. Daniel said that when inspectors showed up to investigate the complaint, Dickson was surprised to find the top floor of the building “looked like a war zone,” with asbestos ripped off the walls and stuffed into drains.

“That was the first time Mr. Dickson had any knowledge that kind of conduct was going on,” Daniel said. “He was sabotaged by a subcontractor. It was a set-up.”

Duffy said he believes Dickson’s story, calling it “an unfortunate situation,” and asked whether DHEC took any action against the subcontractors.

Daniel told the judge that most of the subcontractors were day laborers with falsified asbestos removal licenses. Once the stop-work order was issued, “they scattered,” Daniel said.

Dickson said water containing asbestos material previously was handled properly because it was collected and then filtered before being poured down the drain. He admitted, however, that there was no formal filtration process in place until after investigators questioned him. The investigation report in which Dickson made the false statement was included in DHEC’s file as part of its oversight of the project.

DHEC spokeswoman Cassandra Harris told The Post and Courier that the asbestos project did not pose a public health hazard.

“The sewer system where the discharge took place is a closed system that was not accessible to the public,” Harris said, adding that “the operators of the sanitary sewer system could implement any necessary precautionary measures.”

The building at 334 Meeting St., across from Marion Square, was shut down in 1999 after Hurricane Floyd flooded the structure, damaged roofs and disrupted asbestos in the ceilings.

Dewberry Capital, a development firm based in Atlanta, bought the seven-story structure for $15 million in a government auction in early 2008, and the city approved plans to convert it into an upscale hotel in early 2010. Construction of the hotel began last fall and is expected to be completed by the end of this year.

Business Editor John McDermott contributed to this story.

Reach David Wren at 937-5550 or on Twitter at @David_Wren_