Syracuse company charged with asbestos violations

An environmental lab was indicted Friday on charges it gave contractors fake test results to cover up shoddy asbestos removal projects in local homes, colleges, and businesses.

A 16-count indictment from a federal grand jury accuses Certified Environmental Services Inc. of Syracuse of a decade-long scheme involving false air quality results that allowed contractors to mislead about a dozen building owners into believing asbestos had been properly and fully removed.

"The air monitors were giving them false air results to cover up rip-and-runs," Assistant U.S. Attorney Craig Benedict said.

"Laboratory reports were being generated and given to building owners to tell them that there was at or below detectable levels in their buildings," Benedict said. "In other words, 'It's clean. You can go back in.' In a lot of instances, that was utterly not so."

Five CES employees named in the indictment are charged along with the company with Clean Air Act violations, mail fraud, and making false statements to special agents of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Gabriel Nugent, a lawyer representing the company, said CES disagrees with the allegations.

"The indictment is an inappropriate attempt to criminalize what is at best a regulatory matter," Nugent said in an e-mail to The Associated Press.

Nugent said CES had no reason to believe its clients were subjected to any health risk.

According to the indictment, among the places asbestos was left behind were: a sorority house at Syracuse University, a furniture warehouse, the building housing Syracuse television station WSTM, a medical office building, a reading room at the Kellogg Library in Cincinnatus in Cortland County and a Jobs Corps building in Oneonta.

CES also falsified lab reports at about 30 other properties in central New York, including several dormitories and academic buildings at Syracuse University and Le Moyne College, according to the indictment. But in those cases the asbestos was removed properly, Benedict said.

Benedict said CES engaged in the conspiracy with several contractors in central New York but declined to say how many. They have not been charged.

The case is the third major asbestos fraud case in central New York in the past five years. The most serious was in 2004, when Alexander Salvagno and his father, Raul, were sentenced to 25 and 19 years in prison, respectively. Those are the longest prison terms in U.S. history for criminal violations of federal environmental laws.

The Salvagnos, who were ordered to pay $23 million in restitution, were convicted of setting up a bogus testing lab that falsified 75,000 tests for 1,555 projects. The victims included a nuclear power plant, a children's museum, a brewery, hospitals, banks, churches and schools.

Here the text of a news release sent to Action News by the U.S. Attorney's office:

Andrew T. Baxter, United States Attorney for the Northern District of New York, and John C. Cruden, Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department TMs Environment and Natural Resources Division, announced today the Indictment of an asbestos air monitoring company and laboratory, including one of its owners and six present and former employees, together with a supervisor of an asbestos abatement company.

The Indictment describes a decade long scheme in which asbestos was removed illegally, scattered, and left behind in numerous buildings and homes in Syracuse and other upstate New York areas, while the air monitoring company and laboratory gave the asbestos abatement contractors false and fraudulent air results which led building owners to believe that the asbestos had been properly and fully removed. In still other instances where asbestos was properly removed, fraud ulent air monitoring still occurred. The sixteen count indictment charges the defendants with a conspiracy to: (1) defraud the United States; (2) violate the Clean Air Act; (3) violate the Toxic Substances Control Act; and (4) commit mail fraud. The defendants are also charged with counts of Clean Air Act violations, mail fraud, and making false statements to Special Agents of the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

The corporation and individuals who have been Indicted are:

(1) Certified Environmental Services, Inc., (CES) Syracuse, NY, an asbestos air monitoring company and laboratory;

(2) Barbara Duchene, an owner of CES and its Laboratory Manager;

(3) Nicole Copeland, a supervisor responsible for the CES asbestos air monitoring program;

(4) Elisa Dunn, a former field supervisor for CES and an air monitor;

(5) Sandy Allen, a long time CES air monitor;

(6) Thomas Juliano, a CES air monitor;

(7) Frank Onoff, an asbestos abatement supervisor for Paragon Environmental Construction, Inc. Paragon Environmental Construction, Inc., and another of its supervisors have previously pled guilty to felonies related to illegal asbestos abatement in violation of the Clean Air Act.

The Indictment sets forth dozens of locations where illegal asbestos removal and/or fraudulent laboratory results are alleged to have been generated. The sites are located in Syracuse, Liverpool, Fayetteville, DeWitt, Baldwinsville, Oneonta, Cincinnattus , and Wampsville, New York.

Fraudulent air monitoring, and laboratory results based thereon, were produced for asbestos abatement projects performed within schools, churches, a television station, a facility established to aid mentally disabled individuals, a sorority house, a library reading room, private homes and government buildings, among others. The conspiracy and substantive counts of the Indictment each carry a maximum possible term of incarceration of five years and a fine of $250,000, twice the gross gain to a defendants, or twice the gross loss to a victim.

Asbestos has been determined to cause lung cancer, asbestosis and mesothelioma, an invariably fatal disease. The Environmental Protection Agency has determined that there is no safe level of exposure to asbestos.

As noted above, WSTM-TV 3 in Syracuse has been named as one of the businesses affected by the alleged crimes. The station took action as soon as we were alerted of the U.S. Attorney's Office's investigation. We hired an independent company to conduct air and surface testing in the building. The tests determined there was no air or surface contamination.

Information from the Associated Press and the U.S. Attorney's Office was used in this report.