A federal judge has ordered an Idaho man to serve 17 years in prison for unsafe work practices that left a 20-year-old employee with permanent brain damage from cyanide poisoning, the Department of Justice announced. Allan Elias received the longest sentence ever imposed for an environmental crime, and also was ordered to pay $6 million in restitution to the victim and his family.

In May 1999, a jury in Pocatello, Idaho, found that Elias ordered employees of Evergreen Resources, a fertilizer manufacturing company he owned, to enter and clean out a 25,000-gallon storage tank containing cyanide without taking required precautions to protect his employees. OSHA inspectors repeatedly had warned Elias about the dangers of cyanide and explained the precautions he must take.

Scott Dominguez, an Evergreen Resources employee, was overcome by hydrogen cyanide gas while cleaning the tank and sustained permanent brain damage as a result of cyanide poisoning.

Over a period of two days in August 1996, Elias directed his employees — wearing only jeans and T-shirts — to enter an 11-foot-high, 36-foot-long storage tank and clean out cyanide waste from a mining operation he owned. Elias did not first test the tank for its toxicity, nor did he determine the amount of toxic gases present. After the first day, several employees met with Elias and complained of sore throats — an early symptom of exposure to hydrogen cyanide gas.

The employees asked Elias to test the air in the tank for toxic gases and bring them protective gear — which is required by OSHA and which was available to the defendant free of charge in this case. Elias did not provide the protective gear, and he ordered the employees to go back into the tank, falsely assuring them that he would get the equipment they sought. Later that morning, Dominguez collapsed inside the tank. He could not be rescued for nearly an hour because Elias also had not given employees the required rescue equipment.

Elias was convicted on three counts of violating the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. In addition to the RCRA charge that Elias knowingly endangered his employees, Elias was convicted under RCRA of illegally disposing of hazardous cyanide waste on two separate occasions at Evergreen's Soda Springs, Idaho, facility. During the sentencing hearing that concluded this past April 28, Chief U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill ordered Elias to pay $400,000 to clean up the site.

Elias also was convicted of making a false statement to OSHA by fabricating and backdating a safety plan for entering the storage tank containing cyanide. Elias told rescue workers and emergency room personnel that the storage tank contained nothing that could injure employees, and he specifically denied that cyanide was in the tank. The day after Dominguez was critically injured, Elias prepared a backdated safety permit that falsely stated that employees had been given safety gear before they entered the tank.

The case was brought following a 22-month investigation by EPA’s Criminal Investigation Division and the Criminal Investigation Division of the Internal Revenue Service, with assistance from OSHA and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Also assisting were the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare's Division of Environmental Quality and the Idaho State Police Department. The case was jointly prosecuted by the Justice Department's Environment Crimes Section in the Environment and Natural Resources Division, and two Assistant U.S. Attorneys of the District of Idaho.