A Mt. Lebanon business owner on Oct. 10 pleaded guilty to illegally dumping asbestos-containing waste generated during the renovation of the former George Westinghouse Research and Technology Park in Churchill Borough.
Vikas Jain, 47, chief executive at Paradigm Consultants, was charged Sept. 27 with one count of knowingly violating work practice standards of the Clean Air Act in the wake of an investigation by the FBI and Environmental Protection Agency.
“As western Pennsylvanians, we cherish our abundant natural resources, and we take seriously our responsibility to protect them,” U.S. Attorney Scott W. Brady said in a statement. “In this case, an unscrupulous developer is charged with illegally removing and dumping asbestos in violation of the Clean Air Act, thereby compromising not only our region’s air quality but also the health of the workers hired to perform the removal activity.”
Jain is expected to be sentenced in January.
Understanding Asbestos: Health Impacts, Work Standards, and Disposal Requirements
By way of background, asbestos is actually 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 since the late 1800s until the 1970s, when the EPA 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.
How does asbestos cause harm to a person’s health? When asbestos fibers are inhaled, they may get trapped in the lungs and remain 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.
Asbestos is of particular concern in Allegheny County, where ACHD says the mortality rate is 50 percent higher than the national average.
How Prosecutors Say Jain Violated the Clean Air Act
According to court documents, Jain controlled various business entities, which focused primarily on residential and commercial real estate development and management. Through one of these businesses, he purchased the Westinghouse property with plans to redevelop it.
Before purchasing the property in May of 2012, court documents show Jain obtained an environmental
assessment of the property, which identified the presence of asbestos-containing materials (ACM) in floor tile and pipe insulation throughout the complex.
In early 2017, prosecutors allege that Jain directed workers to remove previously unabated asbestos-containing materials from two buildings at the Westinghouse facility—including large quantities of floor tiles, mastic, and pipe insulation – and subsequently directed one of his workers to remove and pulverize tiles and mastic that contained asbestos using rented floor grinders.
Jain did not apply for or obtain an ACHD permit for this abatement activity, and workers allegedly conducted the removal of ACM without proper protective clothing or adequate respirators.
But that’s not all: Once removed, prosecutors say Jain directed workers to place the ACM debris in black trash bags in a pick-up truck to dispose of it in a dumpster located outside of one of his 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.
Then, after local authorities in Churchill and ACHD investigators learned of the illegal asbestos abatement, “(Jain) took steps to conceal the nature and extent of the removal activity, including by causing grinders to be removed from the Westinghouse Facility, cleaned, and, as to two grinders, returned to the equipment rental company prior to inspection by ACHD,” according to a Department of Justice press release.
The Terms of the Plea Agreement
Under the terms of Jain’s plea agreement, the sentence imposed on him could include:
A prison term of no more than five years
A fine of no more than $250,000
A term of unsupervised release of no more than three years
A special assessment of $100
Making mandatory restitution
Meanwhile, in addition to these criminal charges, Jain also faces a $1.4 million fine imposed by ACHD, which he is appealing.