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The U.S. Supreme Court has let stand the conviction of an Idaho fertilizer company's owner and his 17-year prison sentence -- the longest ever for an environmental crime -- for improper disposal of hazardous cyanide waste that left an employee with permanent brain damage.
Without comment, the justices rejected an appeal by Allan Elias, the owner of Evergreen Resources located near Soda Springs, Idaho. He was convicted for improperly storing and disposing of the cyanide-laced sludge.
According to court documents, Elias over a two-day period in August 1996 ordered four employees to enter a 25,000-gallon storage tank and clean out the one to two tons of hardened cyanide waste, which was more than a foot deep.
Elias did not provide any safety equipment for the employees and they entered the tank wearing only their regular work clothes.
Scott Dominguez, who was then 20, collapsed inside the 11-foot-high, 36-foot-long tank. His co-workers unsuccessfully tried to get him out.
When firefighters finally removed Dominguez, he was in severe respiratory distress and in danger of dying. When the fire chief asked Elias if cyanide could be in the tank, Elias insisted it contained only water and sludge.
After Dominguez was rushed to a hospital where the treating physician suspected cyanide poisoning, Elias told the doctor there was no possibility the tank contained the deadly chemical, according to court documents.
Dominguez suffers from severe brain damage and cannot take care of himself for extended periods, according to the court record.
Weeks after Dominguez was injured, Elias ordered a new employee to move and bury the same sludge, again without safety precautions.
A jury found Elias guilty on all four counts, including storing and disposing of hazardous waste without a permit, knowing his actions placed others in imminent danger of death or serious injury. A U.S. appeals court upheld the conviction and sentence.
In appealing to the Supreme Court, lawyers for Elias said the federal government lacked the authority to enforce the law's criminal penalties in states with authorized hazardous waste programs and argued that prosecutors failed to adequately show that Elias stored and disposed of the waste.
The high court sided with the Justice Department in refusing to hear the appeal.