|TRENTON – Acting Attorney General John J. Hoffman announced that two men pleaded guilty today to charges that, through the demolition company they operated, they unlawfully removed asbestos from the former Zurbrugg Memorial Hospital in Riverside, N.J., without a license, using workers who were not trained or equipped to do the job safely.
Frank J. Rizzo, 55, of Parlin, pleaded guilty to a charge of second-degree conspiracy before Superior Court Judge James W. Palmer Jr. in Burlington County. Under the plea agreement, the state will recommend that Rizzo be sentenced to three years in state prison. In addition, Michael Kouvaras, 61, of Maplewood, pleaded guilty before Judge Palmer to a third-degree charge of violating the Asbestos Control and Licensing Act. The state will recommend that Kouveras be sentenced to up to 364 days in jail as a condition of a term of probation. Deputy Attorney General Mary Erin McAnally took the pleas for the Division of Criminal Justice Specialized Crimes Bureau. Sentencing for the two defendants is scheduled for April 25.
In pleading guilty, the defendants admitted that, through the company they ran, Deuteron Capital, LLC, doing business as South Street Fillit Recycling of Riverside, they illegally removed asbestos without a license and illegally disposed of asbestos at the Zurbrugg Memorial Hospital site. The charges were contained in a June 20, 2012 indictment that resulted from a joint investigation by the Division of Criminal Justice Environmental Crimes Unit and the Department of Corrections Special Investigations Division.
“These two men showed an utter disregard for the health and safety of the workers they hired, as well as the residents living near this site,” said Acting Attorney General Hoffman. “We will not tolerate contractors who ignore our laws and put the public in danger to turn a profit.”
“We are putting unsafe business operators and polluters on notice that if they violate our labor and environmental laws as these defendants did, they could face time behind bars,” said Director Elie Honig of the Division of Criminal Justice. “New Jerseyans have a right to live and work in a safe environment, and we will come down hard on those who violate that principle.”
In early 2010, Rizzo solicited the owner of the Zurbrugg site for the contract to demolish the hospital. South Street was given the contract, which specified that the company would retain all of the proceeds from the recycling of metal and arrange for and pay all demolition costs, including asbestos abatement and disposal. An engineering report on the hospital buildings, which was provided to the defendants, identified extensive asbestos throughout the structures.
The defendants initially retained a licensed asbestos abatement contractor, which provided the required 10-day notice of its intent to perform asbestos abatement at the site to the Department of Labor, Department of Health & Senior Services and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. However, the defendants paid only a few thousand dollars of the 10 percent deposit required by the contractor to start the work. The contractor estimated abatement would cost about $220,000. The licensed contractor worked only one day at the site, removing a small amount of asbestos.
The state’s investigation determined that, between August 2010 and March 2011, Kouvaras, the owner of South Street, and Rizzo, the project organizer, used untrained day laborers, including inmates from Clinton House, a work release halfway house in Trenton, to remove asbestos from sections of the hospital in connection with demolition at the site and their efforts to salvage valuable copper and steel. They engaged in asbestos removal without the required license from the New Jersey Department of Labor and without following the requirements of federal and state laws to prevent the release of toxic asbestos dust and debris.
The investigation revealed that the defendants directed the unlicensed workers to remove asbestos or asbestos-containing material, bury bags of asbestos in the ground, and dump bags of asbestos on the floor of a boiler room to make it look like the building was vandalized. The workers did not wear protective equipment, except for paper masks that are not authorized as safe for asbestos removal, and they quickly removed the paper masks because the masks made it difficult to breathe.
Division of Criminal Justice detectives executed a search warrant at the site on Filmore Street on March 28, 2011, and discovered material containing asbestos strewn on the floor of the boiler room. They found a roll-off container holding over 200 plastic bags of materials, 30 of which were tested and found to contain asbestos. They also uncovered two bags containing asbestos tiles buried in the ground during limited excavation at the site.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Region 2 took jurisdiction of the site and has completed a removal action.
The state investigation began in early 2011 when the Department of Corrections (DOC) Special Investigations Division received a tip that inmates were being used to remove asbestos at the site. DOC alerted the Division of Criminal Justice, which joined the investigation. The Department of Environmental Protection, Department of Health & Senior Services and Department of Labor & Workforce Development assisted with the investigation, including helping with the execution of search warrants at the Zurbrugg site and South Street offices beginning on March 28, 2011.
The investigation was conducted for the Environmental Crimes Unit, within the Division of Criminal Justice Specialized Crimes Bureau, by Sgt. Steven Ogulin, former Detective Dawn Ryan, former Detective Michael Klumpp, Deputy Attorney General McAnally, Deputy Attorney General Phillip Leahy and retired Supervising Deputy Attorney General Betty Rodriguez. The investigation was led for the Department of Corrections Special Investigations Division by Principal Investigator Daniel Klotz.