Despite the filing of federal criminal charges and dozens of government citations, asbestos abatement firm USA Remediation continues to win contracts from the U.S. government, prompting outcries from a regional labor union that claims the firm’s employees are working in unsafe conditions.
Mid-Atlantic Regional Organizing Coalition members protested the unsafe working conditions they say employees face at a Quantico abatement job the firm is currently handling. USA Remediation successfully bid for a sub-contract to remove asbestos from Hochmuth Hall on the Quantico Marine Corps base.
The company was cited May 12, 1998 by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for a job at Quantico during which workers were allegedly exposed to unsafe conditions.
According to an unnamed Marine Corps official, Naval Facilities Engineering Command is in charge of awarding contracts. They hire a general contractor, who is responsible for the subcontractors that are hired. There is a list of contractors who have been banned from federal work.
USA Remediation is not on that list, which general contractor Whiting/Turner is required to check. Whiting/Turner officials could not be reached late Thursday.
The union got involved when the company fired Miguel Carballo, a 38-year-old immigrant from El Salvador licensed in asbestos removal.
USA Remediation’s Risk Manager David Kelsey did not return calls Thursday. A person who answered USA Remediation’s phone said Kelsey and President Jeffrey Sullivan were unavailable.
According to Carballo the following events led to his firing:
The work environment was fine for the first two weeks while workers prepped the building for abatement. After two weeks, Carballo was worried because there were only five-gallons of water available for 24 workers to drink from. A union official at the protest Thursday said the water was supposed to be for asbestos saturation and employees were never provided with potable water. But there was not enough water because of the intense heat; each man’s personal supply dwindled rapidly.
When he approached several different supervisors about the lack of water, they told him it wasn’t their problem. He then began teaching the younger, less-experienced crew members the appropriate way to remove asbestos. He did so because the company was not following standard procedure, he said. Carballo instructed them on his breaks. Although the younger workers are licensed, many of them had no practical experience, he said.
Carballo said the way they were performing their jobs before he taught them the safer way was less expensive for USA Remediation. On Friday, July 11, he was told by a supervisor that his breaks were running too long and he was fired.
But the father of two said he was really fired because he blew the whistle, claiming workers and nearby Marines were unprotected. He says dry asbestos was piled on the floors and that windows were open, allowing asbestos to hit the Marines walking by.
Carballo and several company employees approached union officials for help.
Marines went to Iraq with chemical suits to ward off an attack; instead, they may be poisoned by asbestos in Quantico, said Pete Pimentel, MAROC spokesman. The purpose of the protest — attended by was to put public pressure on the firm and make Marines aware of labor officials said was a dangerous environment near Hochmuth Hall.
Several USA Remediation employees that complained to the union asked Pimentel to keep their identities secret because they are afraid of losing their jobs.
MAROC has filed complaints with the state of Virginia, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration and the Washington, D.C., Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. They will also pursue an investigation through the National Labor Relations Board under the auspices of the Whistle blower Act, which protects people speaking out for the public good.
USA Remediation employees told MAROC the asbestos was removed without being wetted and then dumped on the floor of the building. Asbestos must be wet during abatement. If the material is dry, carcinogenic particles take to the air and can pose a danger to anyone in the immediate area. Scientists say asbestos causes cancer. It has also been linked to several respiratory illnesses.
In March, 33-year-old Robert Birmingham pled guilty to a felony violation of the clean air act for dry asbestos removal from the former Westinghouse Facility Building next to Buffalo-Niagra Airport in Buffalo, N.Y. Birmingham, a supervisor, admitted that USA Remediation falsely reported to the Federal Aviation Administration, that the asbestos had been removed properly when in fact it was cut and allowed to fall 60 feet without ever being saturated.
Asbestos is supposed to be lowered to the ground. Cutting corners is an illegal cost-saving measure, said Martin J. Littlefield, Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Western District of New York.
Birmingham, of West Winfield, N.Y., will testify against superiors Mark Jamieson, John Toner and Corey Seamon. USA Remediation, Inc. has also been indicted. If convicted in U.S. District Court in the Western District of New York, the company could face heavy fines.
USA Remediation — which has offices in upstate New York and Warrenton — received several violation notices and orders to comply, issued by government agencies on a number of sites in several states, including Connecticut, Colorado, Virginia, West Virginia and New Jersey. The notices document a variety of infractions including but not limited to: open seams in work areas that should have been sealed, dry-removal, failure to remove rugs and failure to cover counter-tops. Loose floor tile was left in a dumpster in Trumansburg High School in Trumansburg, N.Y., according to the Department of Labor. Air pressure equipment was not working at an administration project building at the State University of New York at Cortland in 1999. The company received five pages of violation notices in connection with a job at the State University of New York at Binghamton in October, 1999.
Staff writer Daniel Drew can be reached at (703) 878-8065.