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Wreckers at Plant Admit Conspiracy in Asbestos Project

Times Staff Writer

A wrecking company that demolished parts of the Kaiser Steel plant in Fontana pleaded guilty in Los Angeles on Tuesday to seven criminal counts of conspiracy and federal Clean Air Act violations stemming from asbestos removal that sent clouds of potentially cancer-causing asbestos fibers swirling about the plant.

Four former supervisors of Cuyahoga Wrecking Co. also pleaded guilty to a variety of misdemeanor charges, including allegations that one company official assured a demolition worker that “there was nothing at the Kaiser Steel plant site that was going to kill him.”

In fact, many of the 200 laborers who worked at the demolition site from 1983 to 1985 may have been exposed to dangerous levels of asbestos because of the company’s failure to provide protective clothing and respiratory equipment or to utilize federally required safety procedures, federal prosecutors said.

Cuyahoga workers were repeatedly assured by their employers that the asbestos material to which they were being exposed was not hazardous, and employees who complained about safety practices or who refused to collect asbestos were told they would be fired, according to a grand jury indictment earlier this year.

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One company official also threatened to fire workers who talked with any government inspectors, the indictment alleged.

Cuyahoga Wrecking Co., a New York-based company that is now in bankruptcy, was fined $100,000 earlier this year in Maryland after the company pleaded guilty to transporting hazardous waste to an unauthorized facility.

Under the plea entered Tuesday before U.S. District Judge A. Andrew Hauk, the company pleaded guilty to two felony counts of conspiracy and making false statements to the federal Environmental Protection Agency and five misdemeanor counts of exceeding federal asbestos emissions standards and illegal asbestos releases.

Fine of $250,000

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The seven counts carry a maximum penalty of $1.5 million, but under a plea agreement approved by the court, the company will be fined a maximum of $250,000.

The government will stand as an unsecured creditor in collecting the fine. “We’ve been very up-front. They know they’re not going to get it all,” said Dean Hansell, attorney for Cuyahoga’s bankruptcy trustee, who entered the plea on behalf of the corporation.

Entering pleas to a variety of misdemeanor counts were demolition operation supervisors Leonard Cappizi, Chester Reiss Sr., James J. Abbajay and Robert Samuel Torok. They face maximum penalties of three years in prison and $300,000 in fines.

Sentencing was set for Dec. 5.

Asbestos found in Criminal Courts Building. Part II, Page 3.


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