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Environmental Enforcement Roundup: Abatement Firm Convicted; Bayou Cleanup; Cement Rule Petition

Environmental Leader’s daily roundup of key environmental enforcement news:

Asbestos Abatement Firm Convicted of Fraud and Conspiracy

Yesterday a federal jury in Utica, New York found Certified Environmental Services, Inc. (CES), two of its managers, Nicole Copeland and Elisa Dunn and one of its employees, Sandy Allen, guilty of conspiring to aid and abet Clean Air Act violations, commit mail fraud, and defraud the United States. The defendants were also convicted of substantive Clean Air Act violations and mail fraud counts. Defendants CES and Elisa Dunn were convicted of making false statements to federal law enforcement officials.

“Falsifying asbestos reports and air quality data is a serious crime and undermines our nation’s efforts to protect human health and the environment,” Cynthia Giles, assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance said in a press release. “Exposure to asbestos can be fatal and the conviction by a jury shows that the American people will not tolerate illegal activity that puts the public at risk of cancer or other serious respiratory diseases.”

“Because of the dishonest and illegal practices of this company, many people were left unaware for years of their possible exposure to asbestos,” said Ignacia S. Moreno, Assistant Attorney General for the Environment and Natural Resources Division of the Department of Justice. “Companies and employees will be fully investigated and prosecuted when they put the public’s health at risk by violating environmental laws.”

The jury found that CES, its employees, and a supervisor from a former asbestos abatement company, Paragon Environmental Construction, conspired over the course of nearly a decade to falsify lab results used to prove that asbestos removal was done properly. In numerous instances asbestos removal companies represented that homes, schools, and other buildings were free of asbestos contamination when asbestos debris remained behind. Owners of local homes and buildings were unaware that asbestos had been left behind from sloppy abatement work because air quality reports were falsified by CES. Due to the false lab reports, people who lived or worked in the buildings were potentially exposed to asbestos, putting them at risk for developing cancer. EPA investigators have notified affected building owners of the asbestos problem so proper cleanup can be conducted.

The conspiracy, Clean Air Act violations and false statements counts of the indictment each carry a maximum possible term of incarceration of five years and a fine of $250,000. The mail fraud counts each carry a maximum possible term of incarceration of 20 years and similar fines.

The conviction is the latest in a series of asbestos removal cases that EPA and the Justice Department have brought to trial. In June the owners of Kodiak Construction Service were sentenced to a combined total of more than 13 years in prison after being found guilty of numerous asbestos related violations. Another example is the four year sentence and requirement to provide restitution to victims of more than $850,000 for the operator of J & W Construction, Inc. that violated the Clean Air Act through illegal asbestos removal and disposal activities.

Asbestos has been determined to cause lung cancer, asbestosis and mesothelioma, a fatal disease. EPA has determined that there is no safe level of exposure to asbestos.

ConocoPhillips, Sasol to Pay for Bayou Cleanup

ConocoPhillips Company and Sasol North America Inc. yesterday settled a joint enforcement action brought by the Department of Justice, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the United States Attorney’s Office to resolve their liability to EPA for contamination and natural resources damages in the Calcasieu Estuary of Louisiana.

Under the terms of a consent decree ConocoPhillips and Sasol North America will reimburse the EPA Superfund more than $4.5 million and will complete a removal action valued at about $10 million to clean up Bayou Verdine within the Calcasieu Estuary. The Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ) is also a plaintiff in the case and party to the settlement.

“These settlements demonstrate the United States’ and Louisiana’s successful and continuing efforts to hold polluters accountable for contamination in the Estuary,” Ignacia S. Moreno, Department of Justice Assistant Attorney General for the Environment and Natural Resources Division said in a press release. “The responsible parties will fund the clean-up and restore the damaged Estuary. This will provide substantial benefits to the health and environment of the citizens of Louisiana.”

Bayou Verdine is a waterway within the Calcasieu Estuary that flows into the Calcasieu River and is located southwest of the City of Westlake and south of the City of Mossville, in Calcasieu Parish, Louisiana. Heavy industry dominates the southern reaches of Bayou Verdine which has in the past received industrial discharges.

ConocoPhillips and Sasol North America previously entered into an agreement with EPA to perform an Engineering Evaluation and Cost Analysis of Bayou Verdine. The project documented the presence of hazardous substances in the sediments and water of Bayou Verdine and nearby Coon Island Loop. The companies also performed a cleanup in the West Ditch area of Bayou Verdine to address high concentrations of contaminants. The parties entered into negotiations with the DOJ, EPA and LDEQ to perform a cleanup of Bayou Verdine and resolve their liability for past and future response costs for the entire Calcasieu Estuary.

As part of a comprehensive settlement, the Department of Justice lodged a second consent decree that addresses natural resource damages in the Estuary resulting from discharges of hazardous substances.

Under the terms of settlement with state and federal natural resource trustees (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Department of the Interior (DOI), the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ), and the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF), ConocoPhillips and Sasol North America will reimburse the federal and state trustees a total of nearly $1.2 million for a share of past natural resource damages, perform construction of a restoration project selected by the trustees in the Sabine Wildlife Refuge, and pay an additional $750,000 for future monitoring of the restoration project.

 Riverkeeper Petitions EPA to Enforce Cement Kiln Dust Rule

Riverkeeper, a self-proclaimed environmental watchdog group, has filed a petition to force the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to take action on a rule that sets the standards for how toxic cement kiln dust (CKD) is managed by cement producers around the country. According to the petition, this byproduct of cement manufacturing is often dumped into unlined landfills, and old quarries, causing toxic leachate to foul ground and surface water. The proposed rule was published in 1999, but due to “unyielding pressure from the cement industry, has languished for nearly 11 years,” according to Riverkeeper’s petition.

“In New York and around the country these unlined landfills ooze toxic leachate and devastate the environment,” Josh Verleun, Riverkeeper Chief Investigator and Staff Attorney said in a press release. “Through our action, we are seeking to force the creation of federal standards for the disposal of CKD, a substance that when mixed with groundwater, can result in a heavy-metal laden runoff with pH levels comparable to household bleach.”

In recent years, Riverkeeper has investigated several cement plants that have been either been suspected of polluting the Hudson River and its tributaries with contaminated leachate from on-site landfills containing CKD the organization said.  In 2007 Riverkeeper filed a Notice of Intent to Sue Lehigh Northeast Cement Company for alleged discharges from its allegedly unlined CKD landfill. This action resulted in fines being assessed on the company and an Order on Consent mandating cleanup from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.

Riverkeeper’s petition was brought under the federal Administrative Procedures Act (APA) to enforce EPA rules promulgated under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA).

Under the APA the EPA must respond to the petition within 180 days.

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