An Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD) administrative hearing officer has dismissed an appeal filed by Ramesh Jain, Vikas Jain, and two companies they control, finding that the parties illegally disposed of asbestos waste generated during the renovation of the former George Westinghouse Research and Technology Park in Churchill Borough.
The Jan. 12 order - posted to the ACHD website on Wednesday - directed the parties to pay a $1 million civil penalty by Feb. 11.
This decision is the latest and hopefully last in an appeal process has lasted nearly six years. We won’t bore you with every procedural detail, but for anyone concerned with worker health and safety, public health, and air quality in general, the story is unsettling and worth knowing.
A Long Time Coming
In February 2017, a Churchill Borough building inspector contacted ACHD to report his suspicion that people were removing asbestos-containing material (ACM) from buildings on the Westinghouse site without following strict disposal and safety rules.
ACHD inspectors investigated and promptly issued the Jains – Ramesh is Vikas’ father – and their companies an Emergency Enforcement Order demanding they cease all demolition work, prevent anyone from entering the buildings, not alter their removal equipment, make that equipment available for further analysis, and provide waste manifests showing where the previously-removed ACM was taken.
From this point forward, an incredible amount of administrative hearing procedural maneuvering occurred. It matters, but what matters more are the appalling facts of the case (based on findings in the recent order denying the appeal).
To start, there was no permit for the work despite ACHD calculating that more than 160,000 square feet of asbestos-containing floor tile and 10,000 linear feet of amosite had been removed from the site. Per EPA regulations, permits are required for ACM removal in excess of, respectively, 160 square feet and 260 linear feet.
ACHD inspectors did not observe “any evidence” of the required safety equipment, materials, postings, practices, and procedures. This includes worksite warning signs, sealing of the work area, and methods to prevent the escape of asbestos. Workers were observed handling ACM without any protective gear.
Workers were also directed to place ACM debris in black trash bags and toss them in a pick-up truck to dispose of it in a dumpster located outside of one of Vikas Jain’s residential rental properties. The contents of the dumpster, including sealed trash bags containing ACM, were subsequently taken to a local landfill that was not qualified to receive asbestos-contaminated waste.
Finally, in direct defiance of the Emergency Order, the appellants in this case “intentionally switched, concealed, and cleaned off equipment before providing it to ACHD for inspection and testing.”
The only procedural note we will share is that one reason this appeal took six years is that in 2019, Vikas Jain pled guilty in federal court to intentionally violating the Clean Air Act.
Why Asbestos is Still a Major Air Quality and Public Health Concern & The Local Regs Meant to Protect Both
Asbestos is a group of six naturally occurring minerals composed of microscopic bundles of fibers. These fibers are resistant to heat, fire, and chemicals and don’t conduct electricity—all reasons why asbestos was widely used in the building and construction industries for everything from strengthening cement and plastics to insulation, roofing, fireproofing, and sound absorption from the late 1800s until the 1970s, when the federal government began regulating it.
While health studies suggested a link between asbestos exposure and pulmonary illnesses as early as the 1930s, it wasn’t formally classified as a human carcinogen until 1987. In 1988, the EPA estimated that asbestos had been used in the construction of more than 750,000 public buildings.
When asbestos fibers are inhaled, they may get trapped in the lungs and stay there. Over time, they may accumulate and cause scarring and inflammation, which can affect breathing and lead to serious health problems such as lung cancer and chronic lung disease.
Because of its inherent health risks, the Clean Air Act authorized the EPA to establish work practice standards that must be followed to ensure the safe and proper handling and removal of asbestos during renovation work. The Clean Air Act also authorized the EPA to establish disposal requirements for owners/operators who wish to demolish or renovate a facility that has asbestos-containing materials.
In Allegheny County, ACHD is the agency responsible for enforcing the EPA requirements and permitting activities where asbestos might be released into the air. ACHD’s webpage includes many resources covering the regulations and health hazards of asbestos.
Asbestosis is of particular concern in Allegheny County, where ACHD says the mortality rate is 50 percent higher than the national average.
GASP Remains Concerned About Asbestos, Hopeful Jain Case Will Serve as “Cautionary Tale”
“What these business owners did was unconscionable - their reckless behavior put not only their own workers but also an unknown number of Allegheny County residents at risk of exposure to asbestos,” GASP Executive Director Patrick Campbell said. “This ruling really is a victory for public health.”
“We hope this case serves as a cautionary tale for businesses tempted to skirt asbestos-abatement regulations put in place to help protect our air quality and the health of both workers and members of the public.”
GASP continues to be concerned about the number of asbestos-related enforcement actions in Allegheny County and commends Allegheny County Health Department’s Air Quality Program for its continued attention to this burgeoning public health issue.
“An ACHD official told us inspectors can’t write abatement-related enforcement actions fast enough,” Campbell said. “We hope Allegheny County considers this uptick in enforcement activity when budget time comes around. It’s imperative that ACHD has the resources to put a stop to these kinds of bad actors.”
Editor’s Note: You can read the 38-page order in its entirety here.