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Feds probe Illinois company fined for exposing Mexican workers to asbestos

LONDON, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 11:  A sign warns of asbestos danger at a former Royal Mail sorting office on October 11, 2013 in London, England.  (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

LONDON, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 11: A sign warns of asbestos danger at a former Royal Mail sorting office on October 11, 2013 in London, England. (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)  (2013 Getty Images)

Federal prosecutors are looking into possible criminal activist by a Illinois firm accused of importing Mexican workers to remove asbestos, effectively putting a hold on a U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration proceedings against in.

OSHA fined Joseh Kehrer and Albers-based Kehrer Brothers Construction company $1.8 million last year for having the workers remove asbestos from a former school in Okawville without safety gear. . Breathing asbestos fibers can increase the risk of cancer. The company is contesting the allegations.

The Belleville News-Democrat reported Department of Labor spokeswoman Rhonda Burke said federal prosecutors are conducting an investigation "into possibly pursuing criminal charges against the employer."

“The Department of Labor filed an unopposed motion for a stay of proceedings because the U.S. Attorney made the decision to conduct a criminal investigation,” she said. “So right now, the Department of Labor’s allegations against Kehrer are on hold, while the Justice Department finishes their investigation.”

Kehrer's attorney, Clyde Kuehn, confirmed federal prosecutors, along with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, are conducting an investigation. He said such probes aren't uncommon in such cases, but strongly disputes OSHA’s allegations.

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“The reason these citations are being contested is that there are some very significant disagreements on the facts of this case,” Kuehn told the newspaper. “OSHA’s position on the facts is much different from Mr. Kehrer’s position. We’re trying to work toward having an opportunity to lay that out.”

Kuehn added: “We have interviewed all of the witnesses and do not understand why they allege that friable asbestos was removed from that building without safety gear. We’re left to wonder what the evidence is on that, and they have not provided discovery to us on what it is.”

According to OSHA, many of the workers came to the U.S. to work for Kehrer under a special visa program that allows companies to hire foreign workers temporarily. The OSHA fine has not been paid.

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