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Asbestos managers may draw prison time
Contractors could face $3 million in fines
By VIRGINIA HENNESSEY Herald Staff Writer
Feb. 18, 2006 - The contractors charged with unleashing asbestos into the ventilation system of the Salinas courthouse could face close to $3 million in fines if convicted, and two company managers could receive terms of up to three years in prison, according to the state Attorney General's Office.
An attorney general's spokeswoman said Friday the potential penalties illustrate the seriousness of the allegations. Felony charges for workplace violations are not unheard of, said Teresa Schilling, but they are not common.
"These are not the first felonies we've charged," for workplace violations in the state, said Schilling. "But this is definitely one of the more egregious violations of environmental law, because they had full and complete knowledge of the law and they flagrantly ignored it. "Our case is about (the defendants) creating an egregious risk," she said. "We want Skanska and Nova to never do this again."
Nova Partners Inc. of Palo Alto and construction giant Skanska USA Building Inc., were awarded contracts to rebuild the courthouse and remove asbestos from its old walls and ceilings. Work on the project started in early 2004.
On Feb. 8, the Attorney General's Office charged the companies -- as well as their respective project managers, Seth Henderson and Anthony Michael Jones -- with eight felonies and five misdemeanors for allegedly releasing asbestos into the air vents of the courthouse on two occasions in early 2005, causing what prosecutors called "an unreasonable risk of serious injury or death."
List of charges
The charges include disposal and storage of asbestos at an unauthorized site, reckless disposal and storage of a hazardous waste resulting in risk or injury, failure to take safety precautions and reckless emission of air contaminants, which endangered the public.
According to the complaint, construction workers cut and jackhammered directly over asbestos fireproofing, causing asbestos to fall into the space between the ceiling of the first floor and the floor of the second. The space also contains the air intake for the building's ventilation system.
"Despite repeated warnings from contracted experts that their planned work would dislodge asbestos and that safety procedures therefore needed to be put into place, the companies proceeded with demolition," Schilling said in an e-mail earlier in the week.
Once a popular building material, asbestos is a known carcinogen and can cause asbestosis, a scarring of the lungs, as well as cancer in people with chronic exposure.
Both companies have denied wrongdoing. Henderson, Jones and the companies' representatives will be arraigned March 1 and have requested a change of venue due to obvious conflicts within the county.
While Skanska USA Building Inc., the third largest contractor in the United States, has been cited for serious workplace violations in the past, it has never faced criminal charges.
In the wake of the charges, Monterey County Superior Court officials on Friday held their third meeting to assure clerks and bailiffs that their working environment is free from airborne asbestos.
Terry Spitz, chief assistant district attorney, said bargaining units of the deputy district attorneys and public defenders are organizing a similar meeting. A courthouse spokeswoman said private attorneys who use the courthouse should address their concerns to the county.
County spokeswoman Maia Carroll said workers at Friday's meeting expressed concern about the safe levels of asbestos and what was being done to monitor air while asbestos abatement continues in the courthouse.
In response, Carroll said she and county officials are trying to construct a grid displaying the results of air-quality testing that has been conducted over the two years that the courthouse has been under construction.
Carroll said monitoring was conducted 24 hours a day when asbestos abatement was under way and then randomly at other times. The grid illustrating those results, she said, will be more easily read than raw data.
Courthouse employees were evacuated from the building twice while construction was ongoing, once in February 2005 and again in March 2005. In the first incident, one courthouse employee said, court officials believed they had cleared the courthouse when, in fact, not all employees were out of the building.
In the second incident, employees were told at recent meetings, an accident by abatement workers was contained before it could reach courthouse employees.
Schilling, the attorney general's spokeswoman, said asbestos levels registered above safe levels during the incidents.
While meetings were being called to answer questions about the incidents this week, construction workers at the site said they're more concerned about what type of monitoring is being done now.
James Meece said he came from Washington to complete sheetrock work in the air conditioning system and was assured in his contract that he was working in a clean environment. Now he wonders.
"As the abatement team removed the containment, several areas are still tagged," warning of the presence of hazardous materials, he said. "Vibrations lead to possible exposure and without monitoring devices in there, you never know."
Meece said he'd called his union representative, who was contacting the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for information about ongoing monitoring at the site.
The courthouse has continued to function during the reconstruction. Asbestos abatement crews work at night, and the general courthouse staff and other construction workers work during the day.
Asbestos abatement in two remaining courtrooms is expected to be completed by December, and Carroll said she assumed random testing is continuing in the meantime. She said she was unable to confirm that assumption because the company contracted to conduct the monitoring, C&W Environmental Consulting, had not returned her telephone calls.
C&W President Donald Diel declined comment on the case Wednesday.
Schilling, the Attorney General's spokeswoman, said the Monterey Bay Unified Air Pollution Control District is overseeing monitoring of the building now. Officials from that district, which conducted the initial investigation into alleged wrongdoing by Skanska and Nova, declined comment Friday at the request of the Attorney General's Office.