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Michigan Oil Spill Contractors Convicted on Immigration Crimes Linked to Cleanup Work

Two men indicted for their role in exploiting undocumented workers during a 2010 oil spill cleanup have pleaded guilty to multiple immigration crimes. An investigation by The American Independent’s former sister site Michigan Messenger uncovered the exploitation of undocumented workers – mostly from Central America – during the cleanup following a July oil spill in Marshall, Michigan.

Thomas Gard, 50, of Nederland, Texas, pleaded guilty Friday in federal court to “conspiring to transport undocumented aliens, concealing and harboring undocumented aliens and inducing and encouraging their residence in the U.S. for commercial advantage and financial gain,” a press release from U.S. Attorney’s Office of Southern District of Texas reports. His co-conspirator, Philip Hallmark, 49, pleaded guilty in April.

Hallmark was the owner of Hallmark Industrial Services, a company that was contracted to participate in oil spill cleanups in both Florida and Michigan in 2010. Gard was the manager of the company.

The company was hired by Garner Environmental Services, the lead contractor for Enbridge Energy Partners in 2010, to assist in the cleanup of the most expensive oil spill in U.S. history. In late July, Enbridge’s Lakehead Pipeline 6B ruptured, releasing more than 1 million gallons of tar sands oil into the Kalamazoo River and its tributary the Talmadge Creek. The cleanup operation is ongoing and is expected to cost more than $1 billion before it is completed.

Michigan Messenger’s investigation revealed the workers were expected to work 12- to 14-hour days, seven days a week, clearing islands on the river of tar sands oil. The men were paid $800 a week, given shared hotel rooms and fed fast food in exchange for their work.

The investigation also discovered that many of the workers were toiling in unsafe working conditions. Pictures obtained by Michigan Messenger showed workers dressed in white hazmat suits, covered in oil, and eating food during the cleanup.

Federal authorities report that their investigation found the reporting of Michigan Messenger accurate, but added a twist. According to the press release from the U.S. Attorney, while Hallmark Industrial was paying the workers $800 a week in cash, they were also cashing the workers’ checks at a Texas bank. Those payments were for more than the $800 a week, the U.S. Attorney reports.

The day after Michigan Messenger’s report came out, Garner and Enbridge held a day-long safety seminar, and that evening, Hallmark was fired.

Two days later, authorities in Winnie, Texas, were called to a disturbance where buses hired by Hallmark had blocked traffic. They detained more than 50 people, 42 of which were undocumented. An unknown number of people fled.

Enbridge officials denied there were undocumented workers employed on the cleanup until the arrests in Texas, then claimed they had no knowledge of the immigration crimes. However, Messenger reported that a whistleblower had contacted Enbridge and the EPA days before contacting Messenger in August.

Former U.S. Rep. Mark Schauer, a Democrat who represented the area after the spill, tells The American Independent that he is pleased Hallmark and Gard have pleaded guilty and “hopes” the men “receive the maximum sentence.” Both men face up to 10 years in federal prison and fines of up to $250,000.

But Schauer did not stop there. He is calling for action against Enbridge and its lead contractor, Garner Environmental.

“There should be consequences up and down the line. I think they should both be held accountable,” Schauer said in a phone interview Sunday. “At least they should admit they were not truthful in their statements at the time.”

Schauer is seeking the Democratic nomination for governor.

Current Gov. Rick Snyder, who was the Republican nominee for Governor at the time, declined through spokesperson Ken Silven to comment.

“It would not be appropriate for Michigan’s governor to comment as this case apparently was tried in a Texas court and deals with federal immigration laws,” Silven wrote in an email.

Silven also declined to comment on whether or not Enbridge and Garner should be held accountable for the immigration crimes, saying it was a matter for the courts to decide.

Jonathon Byrd, a spokesperson for the Michigan Laborer’s Council, which raised concerns that Michigan skilled, organized labor was not be hired on the spill cleanup, said the union was pleased with the convictions.

“We are pleased that the Hallmark and Gard have been convicted and that Enbridge quickly resolved to work with local labor to stop unscrupulous contractors from exploiting workers,” Byrd said in an email Monday morning.

 

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