Feds: Asbestos Fraud at Buffalo, New York, Housing Complex

By CAROLYN THOMPSON | August 8, 2011

Two city building inspectors and a New York Labor Department inspector were among nine people charged Thursday following a federal investigation into asbestos removal at a Buffalo housing complex that was slated for demolition.

Two companies contracted to remove asbestos and monitor air sampling at the six-building Kensington Towers site during the last half of 2010 also were charged.

Investigators said workers for Johnson Contracting of WNY Inc., the company hired to rid the eight-story buildings of dangerous asbestos, used a jackhammer to cut holes in the floors and dumped asbestos-containing debris through them, intending to leave the material on site while the buildings were demolished.

Each building contained an estimated 63,000 square feet of asbestos-containing material, authorities said. Asbestos removal is closely regulated because the material is known to cause serious health conditions such as mesothelioma, a rare form of lung cancer.

“The defendants are charged with conspiring to illegally allow large amounts of asbestos to be removed unsafely in an attempt to cut costs,” said William Lometti, special agent in charge of the Environmental Protection Agency’s criminal investigation division in New York.

Federal officials said that while the buildings are still standing, they don’t currently pose a health threat to the public because crews are doing remedial work to contain the material.

Telephone numbers for Johnson Contracting of Buffalo and two executives named in the indictment, Ernest Johnson and Rai Johnson, were out of service Thursday.

A second company, JMD Environmental Inc. of Grand Island, was charged with failing to conduct proper air sampling and filing false reports certifying that all asbestos had been removed. Both companies are charged with violating the federal Clean Air Act.

On Thursday, a technician reached by phone at JMD disputed the charges and accused the EPA of unfair tactics. He said he was confident the company would be cleared of wrongdoing.

“The air sampling was proper,” technician Pete Cherenzia said.

Theodore Lehmann, 65, an inspector with the Labor Department’s asbestos control bureau, saw the improper removal practices during inspections but concealed them by saying in reports that no violations were observed, according to the indictment.

Buffalo building inspectors Donald Grzebielucha, 56, and William Manuszewski, 57, were accused of falsely certifying in final inspection reports that all asbestos had been removed when they knew asbestos remained on site.

None of the inspectors immediately responded to telephone messages left by The Associated Press seeking comment. Grzebielucha has retired while Manuszewski and Lehmann remain on the job, authorities said.

All of the charges carry a maximum of five years in prison.

“The nation’s environmental laws are intended to protect not only people who live and work near abatement sites, but those employed in the abatement industry itself,” U.S. Attorney William Hochul said in announcing the indictment following an investigation that involved the EPA, FBI, Housing and Urban Development and state Environmental Conservation Police.

“The Kensington Towers complex is in close proximity to a city neighborhood where people live as well as a hospital, a school and a park,” Hochul said.

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