State agency taken to court over emails about asbestos exposure

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GOSHEN, Ind. (WTHR) - Some Indiana homeowners are taking the state to court because of emails.

Specifically, emails with portions blacked out that they claim are covering up critical information about asbestos in their neighborhood.

13 Investigates reveals why some say this is the latest in a disturbing trend toward government secrecy in Indiana.

The standoff between Goshen homeowners and the Indiana Department of Environmental Management is part of a private federal lawsuit. While the state agency is not the target, attorneys say IDEM's actions exposed an entire neighborhood and even high school students to asbestos.

What's contained in those emails could uncover the reasons why.

Seven-thousand tons of asbestos-laced debris was left in piles, blowing into the wind, exposing an entire neighborhood to cancer-causing material.

The United States EPA says it happened all under IDEM's watch and worse yet, a 20-year inspector within the agency missed it.

Or did he?

Federal court records obtained by 13 Investigates indicate the evidence is found within 28 emails IDEM turned over as part of a subpoena. The problem is the emails were redacted, with words blocked out and names covered up.

According to the lawsuit, "The redacted and withheld information may explain how and why IDEM incorrectly determined that no asbestos existed at the site."

IDEM is refusing to provide the complete emails claiming it has "deliberative-process privilege."

But attorney Tom Barnard argues the federal privilege only applies to federal agencies - not the state of Indiana.

"The State of Indiana seems to be retreating almost running away from this notion of transparency," said Attorney Bill Groth.

Groth is not a part of the IDEM lawsuit, but understands the fight. He's been trying to force Governor Mike Pence and his staff to turn over un-redacted emails he requested.

"What are they doing behind the scenes? Citizens should have the right to kind of pull the curtain away and see what's going on behind it, when we as taxpayers are the ones paying their salaries," said Groth. "There does seem to be a disturbing trend here in Indiana toward secrecy in government, away from transparency."

Homeowners in Goshen living near the piles of asbestos on the old Johnson Controls site are now asking a federal judge to force IDEM to come clean.

They want to know why Richard Swift, a convicted habitual offender who spent 18 years in prison, was alllowed to tear down the buildings without removing the asbestos first.

Even more troubling, the inspector who issued two reports finding "no violations" of improper asbestos removal wrote emails claiming just the opposite.

When another employee mentioned the handling of the cancer causing material being criminal, the inspector replied, "Way to drop criminal on him!! Very true...good move!!"

But in the end, the inspector said he found no asbestos and he can't explain why he missed 7,000 tons of it.

Since our earlier reporting, the U.S. EPA has spent $1.8 million to properly remove the piles of asbestos debris. These taxpayers believe IDEM owes them and the U.S. EPA a complete explanation.

Groth was somewhat surprised to see a state agency now pushing against transparency. He says the efforts have become more aggressive during Pence's time in office

Groth's case goes before the Indiana Appeals Court on Monday.