Two former Marion firefighters worry about exposure to asbestos

Two former Marion firefighters worry about exposure to asbestos, (Tonya Brown/WPDE)

Former Marion City firefighters Baxley Howe and Christopher McKenzie said they're concerned about their health after being exposed to asbestos at the fire department.

The Marion City Administrator and Fire Chief have been indicted on multiple charges related to accusations that they knew the city’s fire department building contained asbestos and allowed staff, volunteers and community members to be exposed to the cancer-causing material, according to court paperwork.

Alan Thomas Ammon, the Marion city administrator and building inspector, and Ralph Walton Cooper, III, a.k.a. Trey Cooper, the Marion fire chief, are both charged with misconduct in office; violations of pollution control act; and conspiracy to violate the pollution control act, according to indictments filed on Nov. 2, 2017.

The two were arraigned Friday morning and both granted a personal recognizance bond.

The indictments allege that, between Feb. 1 and May 1 of 2017, Ammon and Cooper:

Knew that the City of Marion Fire Department Building contained asbestos and allowed fire department staff, volunteers, and/or members of the community to be exposed to asbestos and/or be present in asbestos contaminated locations during the demolition and preparation of the City of Marion Fire Department Building.

The indictments also allege that both men allowed “asbestos containing waste to be discharged into the environment” and conspired to do so.

Howe said he resigned this week after nearly six years with Marion City Fire.

"I chose to resign because of the fact that I was ready to speak out. The truth has been hid for so long. The citizens are not aware that we were exposed to asbestos and how we were supposed to asbestos," said Howe.

Howe said Cooper told firefighters to remove broken tiles which contained the asbestos.

"We were exposed by being forced to remove the asbestos with no proper equipment. No training. There was no training on how to handle the asbestos. And we exposed without any proper training. We were told to get rid of the asbestos that's shared between the library and the fire department," said Howe.

McKenzie, who was fired as the department's assistant fire chief for an unrelated matter, said he told Cooper about the asbestos back in March.

"Firefighters and community service workers were in the backroom scraping the tile up which was asbestos. It was broken up in several pieces. I raised concern to chief Cooper which was dismissed. I told several firefighters if I were you , I would walk away from this because it's asbestos," said McKenzie.

ABC15 News reported back in May the city spent $30,000 to remove the asbestos.

Ammons told us then the asbestos had been in the building for a long time, but wasn't discovered until floor tiles were pulled up following all the flooding from Hurricane Matthew back in October.

DHEC officials said they requested the recreation room, as well as adjacent rooms, be closed and a contractor hired to identify what contamination may exist.

McKenzie said, "They should have done the right thing and called a company in to begin with. And spent the money to clean the backroom. Not expect firefighters and community service workers to do it."

Ammons' and Cooper's said they're not guilty of the charges against them.

"The City of Marion has met. And they have not suspended these two individuals. Which ought to send a clear message to the community. What lies behind all of it," said Morgan Martin, Cooper's Attorney.

"I don't think he should have been indicted. It's a unique case. Strange its being prosecuted in this way that it's being handled as a criminal matter. I don't think what he did with the intent to committ a crime. Neither gentlemen intended to committ a crime," said Robert E. Lee, Ammons' Attorney.

The City of Marion is allowing Ammons and Cooper to remain in their respective positions until their cases go to trial.

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