Tuesday, August 09, 2011

NYSDOL Asbestos Inspector Indicted in Kensington Towers Probe

Thank you to Darren Yehl of Cornerstone Training for bringing this indictment to my attention:

A state inspector and two City of Buffalo inspectors are among nine individuals and two companies indicted Thursday on felony charges related to an asbestos removal project in the city.  The 23-count federal indictment also charges six of the contractors' employees with improperly removing and disposing of asbestos at the Kensington Heights housing project on Fillmore Avenue.  Federal and state officials would not confirm the likelihood that workers or neighborhood residents were put at risk during the asbestos removal, but they would not rule it out either.

"These are very serious charges," U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr. told reporters. "Asbestos is a highly dangerous substance."

The charges outlined in the 62-page indictment center around the work done by two companies -- Johnson Contracting of Buffalo and JMD Environmental Inc. of Grand island -- and the allegations that they violated the federal Clean Air Act by improperly disposing of asbestos.  The indictment also charges a state Labor Department inspector, Theodore Lehmann, and two city inspectors, Donald Grzebielucha and William Manuszewski, with falsifying inspection reports.

"They certified false documents or lied about what they saw," Hochul said.

Prosecutors said one of the inspectors has reportedly retired but two others remain on the job.  State and city officials declined to comment, and Lehmann, Grzebielucha and Manuszewski could not be reached to comment.  When asked if bribes were involved, Hochul said his office has yet to uncover any evidence of payoffs.

"At this point, I can't comment on the motive," he said of the inspectors.

Most of the indictment focuses on the work of the two companies hired to remove and dispose of asbestos at Kensington Heights.  Visible from the Kensington Expressway, the 17-acre public housing project has been a symbol of decay and abandonment for three decades.  The complex, made up of six vacant towers behind Erie County Medical Center, is owned by the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority and was targeted for demolition two years ago.  Tearing down the eight-story towers is the first step in the Housing Authority's proposal for a new $105 million retirement community.

As part of the demolition, Johnson Contracting was hired to remove and dispose of the estimated 63,000 square feet of asbestos in each of the towers.  JMD was hired to monitor their work.  The indictment alleges that from June 2009 to January 2010, Johnson and two of its managers -- President Ernest Johnson and Supervisor Rai Johnson -- instructed workers to dump asbestos down holes cut through the floors of each building.  They also are charged with failing to wet the asbestos and leaving it in open containers for disposal. 

Aaron Mango, the assistant U.S. attorney overseeing the case, said Johnson's practices violated a wide range of regulations regarding the disposal of asbestos.

"It is so dangerous," Mango said, "you have to insure you're taking these steps."

The indictment also alleges that JMD, the company hired to monitor Johnson's work, conspired to violate the Clean Air Act.  The company was hired to conduct air sampling tests and other oversight work but, according to prosecutors, failed to do those tests properly.  The government also claims JMD falsified inspection reports.  The indictment also charges four of JMD's employees: Field Supervisor Evan Harnden of North Tonawanda and Project Monitors Henry Hawkins of Buffalo, Chris Coseglia of Niagara Falls and Brian Scott of North Tonawanda.

Each of the 23 counts carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison, a fine of $250,000 or both.

"Asbestos is a known carcinogen and we take very seriously these investigations," said David G. McLeod Jr., assistant special agent in charge of the Criminal Investigative Division of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

According to the EPA, exposure to asbestos increases the risk of lung disease, including lung cancer and mesothelioma.  State and federal officials would not speculate on the public health risks posed by the asbestos-removal effort at Kensington Heights.  They did acknowledge, however, that given the companies' alleged practices and the six-month period in which the alleged violations took place, it is possible the public was put at risk.

"There are plenty of good reasons why the (Clean Air Act) is on the books," Hochul said.

Prosecutors said the indictment is the culmination of an investigation involving a wide range of state and federal agencies, including the FBI, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the New York State Department of Environmental ConservationWork on Kensington Heights stalled last year and prompted the Housing Authority to terminate its demolition contract with developer Hormoz Mansouri in January.  Mansouri countered by suing the authority for breach of contract.  Federal officials said Mansouri, a politically connected contractor, is not accused of any wrongdoing.
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