Biggest Asbestos Scandal
In US History Uncovered
By John Fritze - Poughkeepsie Journal Albany bureau
ALBANY - The owner of an asbestos removal company that handled at least two Dutchess County projects was arrested Thursday - part of what officials called the largest criminal investigation of that industry in the United States.
Twelve individuals and two corporations, most of them based in the Albany area, pleaded guilty to charges ranging from mail fraud to violations of federal clean-air standards for removing, transporting and disposing of asbestos during the past 10 years.
In addition, Joseph Thorn of Rensselaer, the owner of A+ Environmental Services, was arrested Thursday and charged with money laundering in connection with supervising illegal abatement projects at more than 130 sites, including the Netherwood Elementary School in Hyde Park and at the Poughkeepsie Journal building.
Violations 'shocking'
He faces a possible 65-year prison sentence a $6 million fine. He was released Thursday after posting $25,000 bail.
''The breadth of the criminal violations are shocking,'' said U.S. Attorney Daniel French. ''The willingness of these defendants to place their workers and the public at risk is unconscionable. They are criminal, they were driven by greed, their behavior was reprehensible.''
Asbestos-removal workers at more than 200 buildings upstate were untrained, falsified air-quality tests and neglected to file paperwork to alert health authorities, the U.S. Attorney's Office announced Thursday after a widespread probe into the industry.
Federal authorities said there was no immediate concern for public health in the buildings, which include public schools, state-office complexes, nursing homes, banks, fire stations and private homes. But they suggested that owners contact a certified asbestos-abatement company to review the work.
Asbestos has been shown to cause asbestosis, a degenerative lung disease, and some forms of lung cancer. But Jeanne Fox, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's regional administrator, noted that asbestos-related diseases are generally the result of prolonged exposure to the product, once commonly used as insulation in buildings.
''From what we know about these particular abatements, we don't believe that people who lived, worked or visited the buildings have been exposed at that level,'' Fox said.
French said federal authorities started working with the state on the investigation after an industry source came forward, claiming he overheard a number of workers bragging about how their boss had purchased their training certification.
He said a complete list of the buildings where the work occurred would not be available until the federal government finished contacting owners. He said several hundred more buildings were expected to be added to the list and said that more indictments would be handed down in coming weeks.
The companies were charged with violations in one of three areas of asbestos removal: the abatement itself, monitoring the site during and after the job, and providing the appropriate training to workers. Building owners were charged with failing to conduct asbestos inspections of the building before starting renovation or demolition work.
In some cases, for example, the contractor failed to notify the Environmental Protection Agency and the state Department of Labor ten days prior to the start of project, a process that gives the government time to send inspectors.
Other companies failed to construct adequate containment structures to prevent the spread of asbestos around the work area or to hire an independent air-monitoring firm to ensure safe air quality throughout the job. French said his office was still investigating which offenses occurred where and how serious the problem was.
''We don't know for sure how much of (the asbestos) they cleaned up,'' French said. ''Everyone is concerned because we don't have all the answers.''
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