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Justice system catches asbestos criminals nationwide

Monday, August 20, 2001
By Environmental News Network

In the first two weeks of August, the environmental authorities in four states have been busy prosecuting violators of federal asbestos regulations.

In Pennsylvania, Thursday the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) seized a tractor-trailer that hauled asbestos and then allegedly picked up wheat to be processed for human consumption.

The driver then allegedly attempted to deliver the wheat to a mill in Martins Creek, Northampton County, which processes it into food for people.

"It is illegal to use the same tractor-trailer to haul waste and food products," DEP Secretary David Hess said.

Inspectors from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, the Pennsylvania State Police and the DEP discovered the back-hauling Aug. 13 during routine inspections of trucks south of State College, Pennsylvania.

The driver, Thomas Leiter of Lewistown, had hauled asbestos from Portland, Connecticut, to L.A.S. Recycling in Youngstown, Ohio. He then allegedly picked up the wheat at McCullough Grain in Sharpsville, Ohio. Leiter was driving for Marbec Trucking Inc. in Spring Run, Franklin County.

When stopped, Leiter told inspectors he was en route to ConAgra in Martins Creek, Northampton County, and that the wheat was to be used for animal feed, but that ConAgra mill processes wheat only for human consumption.  The mill's operator rejected Leiter's load after investigators notified him that the wheat was contaminated.

Leiter faces a fine of up to $10,000, and the incident remains under investigation.  The contaminated wheat was disposed of in a Pennsylvania landfill.

In the first two weeks of August, the environmental authorities in four states have been busy prosecuting violators of federal asbestos regulations.

Asbestos is regulated under the Clean Air Act as a hazardous air pollutant.  Exposure to asbestos can cause life threatening diseases, including lung cancer, scarring of the lungs, and mesothelioma, a rare cancer of the thin membrane lining of the lungs, chest, abdomen, and heart.

Another type of asbestos problem reached the criminal justice system on August 9 when the corporate owner of a Kansas City, Missouri automobile assembly plant and its former general manager were indicted by a federal grand jury for allegedly improperly removing asbestos from the plant in September 1997.

Leeds Industrial Park, Inc., a Missouri corporation which owns the former General Motors auto plant, and Clinton Barr, who served Leeds as general manager of the plant from 1994 to December 1997, are charged with a felony violation of the federal Clean Air Act.

According to the indictment, an inspector with the Kansas City Department of Health ordered Leeds, through Barr, to hire a qualified and approved asbestos abatement company to clean an area of the plant where asbestos-wrapped pipe had been cut and allowed to drop to the floor.

But despite having contracted with an approved firm to do the work, Barr hired untrained Leeds employees to remove asbestos-containing materials from an area near the portion of the plant that had been cited by the inspector.

The Leeds employees, at Barr's direction, spent two days sweeping, shoveling and manually collecting piping insulation and asbestos containing materials from the plant, the indictment alleges.  Those materials were improperly removed, handled, packaged and disposed of, the indictment says.

Under Clean Air Act regulations, workers must wet asbestos insulation before stripping it off pipes; seal asbestos debris in leak-tight containers while still wet, to prevent the release of asbestos dust; and dispose of asbestos contaminated material at an approved hazardous waste facility.

If convicted, Barr could spend five years in prison without parole, plus pay a fine up to $250,000, while Leeds Industrial Park, Inc., could be subject to five years of corporate probation, plus a fine up to $500,000.

On Aug. 7, a Virginia real estate broker and his employee were indicted by a federal grand jury in Charlottesville, and charged with conspiring to illegally remove asbestos from aging buildings.

The two defendants recruited untrained homeless men to remove asbestos from properties in Staunton, Virginia, without providing the necessary safety equipment or training.

The indictment charges David Stephen Klein of Heathrow, Florida, and Josef Gene Weiss, Jr. of Harrisonburg, Virginia with illegally removing and disposing of asbestos, failing to notify federal and state regulators of the asbestos work, and conspiracy to commit those offenses.  Klein operated Davold Real Estate Partnership, which owned commercial buildings in the Staunton area, including the Masonic and the Towne Centre buildings.

From about 1996 to 1998, Weiss is alleged to have recruited workers from the Staunton Valley Mission, a shelter for homeless people, to remove asbestos from buildings owned by Klein and Davold Partnership.  These workers had no training in proper asbestos abatement methods and they lacked proper safety equipment, according to the indictment.

Weiss allegedly directed workers to gather the asbestos waste after it was removed and to put it into plastic trash bags.  He then told the workers to dump the bags in Dumpsters and other locations in and around Staunton.

This investigation was conducted by the U.S. EPA Criminal Investigation Division and the Staunton, Va. Police Department.  The case is being prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Western District of Virginia and the Environment Division of the Justice Department.

And in Salt Lake City, Utah, the U.S. EPA announced Monday that Brent Sumsion, president of Valley Asphalt Inc., has pleaded guilty to negligent endangerment under the Clean Air Act for exposing his employees to asbestos.

The exposure originated from insulation removed from tanks at Valley Asphalt's Spanish Fork, Utah facility and then buried at a site in Elberta after sampling and testing found the insulation contained asbestos.  Sumsion directed company employees to remove the buried materials, thus exposing the employees to asbestos.

These cases typically involve three or four enforcement agencies from federal and state levels.  Sumsion's plea is the result of a joint investigation by the EPA's Criminal Investigation Division, the Utah Attorney General's Office and the Utah Department of Air Quality.

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