Indictment accuses contractors of hiring inmates to illegally remove asbestos
Two New Jersey men have been indicted on charges that they hired untrained day laborers, including inmates from a halfway house, to unlawfully remove asbestos from an abandoned hospital.
Frank J. Rizzo and Michael Kouvaras, owners of South Street Fillit Recycling of Riverside, are charged with conspiracy, unlawfully causing the release of a toxic pollutant, abandonment of toxic pollutants and violating the Asbestos Control and Licensing Act.
The men are accused of directing unlicensed workers, including inmates from Clinton House, a work release halfway house in Trenton, to bury about 50 bags of asbestos and asbestos-containing material in the ground. The indictment alleges that Kouvaras, the owner of South Street, and Rizzo, the project organizer, ordered the workers to dump bags of asbestos on the floor of a boiler room of the former Zurbrugg Memorial Hospital, which was slated for demolition, so that it would appear that vandals had removed the asbestos while stealing copper and steel.
The charges stem from a joint investigation by the Division of Criminal Justice Environmental Crimes Unit and the Department of Corrections Special Investigations Division.
Asbestos was used to make building materials and insulation from the 1920s to the 1970s, when it became one of the first hazardous air pollutants regulated by Clean Air Act. About 10,000 people die from asbestos-related diseases in the United States every year, including more than 2,000 cases of mesothelioma, a rare and invariably fatal disease that is difficult to diagnose.
“These men knew there was asbestos throughout this old hospital and knew the real dangers involved in removing it, but we allege that they put their monetary self-interest ahead of the health and safety of their workers and the surrounding community,” said New Jersey Attorney General Jeffrey S. Chiesa in a press release.
Prosecutors say that Rizzo solicited a contract to demolish the hospital that specified South Street would pay all costs, including asbestos abatement and disposal, in exchange for retaining the proceeds from the recycling of metal.
The defendants initially retained a licensed asbestos abatement contractor, but paid only a few thousand dollars toward the cost of the project, estimated at about $220,000. The licensed contractor worked only one day at the site, removing a small amount of asbestos, prosecutors allege.
Rizzo and Kouvaras then hired day laborers, including the Clinton House inmates, to remove asbestos from sections of the hospital. Prosecutors say the workers were not provided the proper protective equipment, but wore only paper masks — which they subsequently removed — while they stripped asbestos-containing insulation from pipes and a boiler.
In March 2011, officials with the state Division of Criminal Justice, acting on a tip that inmates were being used to remove asbestos, executed a search warrant at the hospital site. They discovered asbestos-containing material on the floor of the boiler room, two bags of asbestos tiles buried in the ground and another 30 bags of asbestos-containing material in a roll-off container.
If convicted, Rizzo and Kouvaras could receive five to 10 years in prison and fines of up to $150,000.