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Company boss given six month sentence after demolishing asbestos laden factory

A company owner who demolished a disused factory in a built up residential area despite knowing there was more than 250 tonnes of asbestos has been handed a six month jail term.

However John Lewis, trading as John Lewis Plant Plant Hire and Contracts, walked free from Belfast Crown Court after His Honour Judge Kinney suspended the jail term for two years.

He told Lewis, whose company address was given as the Lany Road in Moira, it was his view that "this was a deliberate breach by the defendant of his obligations" to ensure the health and safety of not just employees but also the wider public.

"The dangers of asbestos are obvious and well recognised," said Judge Kinney who revealed that reports from the Health and Safety Executive showed there was an "imminent risk to health" because of the way the asbestos had been handled.

He had earlier heard how Lewis' company had demolished two other factories in the Broadway Industrial Estate, just off Rodden Street in the Village area of south Belfast and had employed a specialist disposal firm to deal with asbestos in 2008.

However despite having a survey which proved there was the potentially lethal material in the third building, they went back to demolish it in February 2011 and were only stopped when officials from the Health and Safety Executive intervened.

Prosecuting lawyer Peter Magill had recounted how there was a total of 1,300 square metres of asbestos insulating board and cement on the site, amounting to some 250 tonnes.

The proper disposal of the material, he told the court, had left Belfast City Council with a bill for £290,000 (pounds).

The former owner of the company, Mr John Lewis, had pleaded guilty to five offences relating to the management of asbestos under the Health and Safety at Work act on February 8 2011.

With the court having heard how Lewis agreed to demolish the factory in exchange for the "scrap value" of metal at the site, Mr Magill said that whatever had happened, "it was clear that he was carrying out his work in an unsafe fashion".

"Unsafe to his workers and unsafe to the surrounding area which was in the heart of the city and where there would be a large number of members of the public and indeed, a primary school not far distant," said the lawyer.

Defence lawyer Joe Lindsay told the court that as a result of this case and other matters Lewis, who had been in the trade in excess of 40 years, was now bankrupt.

Revealing how employees of John Lewis were found on site hand picking pieces of asbestos out of the contaminated rubble without appropriate protection, Louis Burns, Principal Inspector for HSENI’s Major Investigation Team said: “The dangers of asbestos are well known. It is vital that buildings are properly surveyed for asbestos and that asbestos is removed by a licensed asbestos contractor prior to demolition. If these vital steps are not followed there is the potential for asbestos to be released and spread in an uncontrolled manner. This potentially gives rise to serious health concerns.”

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