Feds indict oil spill contractors over undocumented workers

LANSING -- The federal government has indicted an owner and a manager of a Texas-based company for allegedly conspiring to violate immigration laws.

The charges are connected to Hallmark Industrial Services’ (HIS) participation in the cleanup of a July 2010 oil spill in Calhoun County, Mich. An investigation conducted at the time by Michigan Messenger (an American Independent News Network publication) reported that HIS was busing in undocumented workers to toil on the river cleanup 12 to 14 hours a day, seven days a week, in conditions cleanup officials said were unsafe.

The indictment was filed Feb. 29 in the Southern District of Texas against Philip Hallmark, Thomas Gard, and an unnamed individual. Hallmark is an owner of HIS. Gard was a manager at the company.

Hallmark and Gard turned themselves in on March 7. The unnamed individual has not yet been arrested, so portions of the indictment related to his or her participation remain sealed by order of the federal court.

The indictment alleges that beginning in April 2009, the three defendants “did combine, conspire, confederate and agree with each other and with others both known and unknown to the grand jury” to violate U.S. immigration laws for “commercial advantage and private financial gain.”

The indictment alleges that Hallmark, Gard, and the third individual sought out undocumented workers, filled out false employment documents, and provided false social security numbers for those same workers.

The government further alleges that in July 2010, the defendants “arranged for lodging and meals to illegal aliens in Battle Creek and Kalamazoo, Michigan, for work in a cleanup operation of an oil pipeline rupture near Marshall, Michigan.”

Those arrangements were for illegal immigrants the defendants are alleged to have transported to Michigan, the indictment says.

“Beginning August 1, 2010, defendants and other conspirators arranged for chartered buses to transport illegal aliens to and from Winnie, Texas, to Kalamazoo, Michigan to work in a clean up operation of an oil pipeline rupture near Marshall, Michigan.”

HIS workers were participating in the cleanup of the spill of over one million gallons of tar sands oil from a ruptured underground pipeline. The oil contaminated about 38 miles of the Kalamazoo River, as well as nearly two miles of Talmadge Creek, a tributary.

The ruptured pipeline is owned by Enbridge Energy Partners. Enbridge hired Garner Environmental, a Texas-based environmental cleanup company, to coordinate the cleanup efforts. In turn, Garner hired about a dozen other companies, including HIS.

Near the end of August 2010, Michigan Messenger, acting on a tip from an anonymous source, visited the rallying point for HIS employees. Messenger confirmed that many of the employees were undocumented workers.

The source also provided photos that Enbridge and EPA officials said showed safety concerns, including workers dressed in full protective clothing, covered in oil, and eating in the middle of contaminated islands.

Workers were being paid $800 a week and were provided with a hotel room and fast food. The weekly payments were made in cash, Messenger reported and the federal government alleges in the indictment.

HIS was fired by Garner Environmental the same day Messenger broke the story. Two days later, on Sept. 1, Chambers County Sheriff’s officials detained 42 undocumented workers being transported on two buses in Winnie, Texas. On Sept. 2, Chambers County Sheriff Joe LaRive confirmed the undocumented workers had been working on the cleanup efforts in Michigan. He also confirmed the workers were employed by HIS. The workers were expecting to meet Hallmark in order to be paid for their work, but he was not present, LaRive said.

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