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Asbestos Worker Tasted It, Choked On It

Prosecutors say hundreds of former asbestos workers in the state may be at risk

Mar 8, 2004 | The Post-Standard At age 46, Tom Valachovic says he wakes each morning gasping for air. At middle age, he has the lungs of an old man.

"Last week my dog got out at 12 o'clock at night," he said. "I walked up the driveway and I almost couldn't make it back. That was the worst ever. I was scared. I thought I was going to die right there. I couldn't breathe."

Such is life with asbestosis, a long-term disease of the lungs that only gets worse. The incurable illness is caused by inhaling asbestos fibers that irritate and inflame lung tissue, scarring the lungs. The scarring makes it increasingly difficult to breathe.

More than 10,000 Americans have the disease. About 1,200 die from it each year. But what makes Valachovic unusual is that he developed symptoms less than five years after leaving his job removing asbestos from old buildings. Normally it takes 20 years or more for people to develop asbestosis, doctors say.

Federal prosecutors suggest in court records that hundreds of former asbestos workers in New York state may be at risk of developing the same problems as

Valachovic the price of working in a corrupt industry that placed profits ahead of workers' health and safety. A federal crackdown has led to guilty pleas or convictions of about 60 people from more than 30 companies in New York since 1999.

Valachovic, of Mayfield, Fulton County, is a former employee of AAR Contractor Inc. of Latham, once one of the largest asbestos cleanup companies in the state.

AAR and its owners are on trial in federal court in Syracuse in what the federal Environmental Protection Agency calls the most significant criminal prosecution of the asbestos cleanup industry in the nation's history. The trial will enter its fifth month this week.

AAR and its owners, Alexander Salvagno, 37, of Loudonville, and his father, Raul, 71, of Ormond Beach, Fla., are charged with routinely ignoring safety rules to save time and money. Employees ripped asbestos from buildings without wearing respirators and other protective clothing.

Valachovic said employees knew they were breaking the law but followed their bosses' orders. The asbestos was often removed dry, rather than wet, violating federal laws. That allowed particles to float in the air in choking clouds that some workers described as a blizzard.

Couldn't breathe

"Sometimes you would have to put on your mask because you couldn't breathe at all," Valachovic said. "It was nasty. When I was in an enclosure by myself, it was so intense you actually had to wear it."

Valachovic said he knew the instant the asbestos was in the air.

"It's got a taste," he said. "And when you got it on you, you could feel it stabbing you. Your eyes would be bad. I can remember my eyes being bloodshot all the time."

Valachovic's story mirrors the court testimony of his former supervisor and other officials from AAR and affiliated companies. Thirteen former managers from the operation have admitted their guilt in plea bargains made with prosecutors. They await sentencing.

AAR removed asbestos at more than 1,500 projects across Upstate New York, including 34 in the Syracuse area, according to the prosecution's evidence. The local projects included the James A. FitzPatrick nuclear plant near Oswego and the Milton J. Rubenstein Museum of Science and Technology in Syracuse. Other projects include churches, hospitals, schools, theaters, military housing, banks and private homes, prosecutors say.

David Bernfeld, the lawyer representing AAR and Alex Salvagno, declined to comment for this story.

Starting with easy money

Valachovic, who has not testified in the case, said he worked from 1991 to 1994 for AAR and American Manpower of Glov- ersville, a company that witnesses said existed only to supply AAR with laborers.

Valachovic said his health problems surfaced in 1999, when he was working on a home construction project and started feeling chest pains. He thought he was having a heart attack. Doctors found a mass growing around one of his lungs and noncancerous spots on his lungs. In the process, they removed one-third of his lower left lung.

His doctors explained that small asbestos particles in his lungs are attacked by his body's defenses, forming tumors that fill up his air passages and making breathing difficult.

In October 2003, a state workers' compensation judge ruled that Valachovic's doctors provided "convincing proof" that his asbestosis was caused by exposures from his job.

Despite those problems, Valachovic said he continues to smoke about two packs of Marlboros every day. He has been smoking since the age of 10 or 12, and he knows cigarettes make his condition worse.

"I'm afraid to quit smoking," he said, laughing uneasily. "I think that the tar actually helps. Maybe the asbestos is staying buried under the tar."

Valachovic, at 6 feet 3 inches and 235 pounds, said he spent much of his working life doing the hard physical labor of construction. He worked as a general contractor, sometimes making his best money when he was paid off the books.

Lured by the cash

In 1991, he began removing asbestos for Anthony Mongato, owner of American Manpower. Mongato pleaded guilty in April 2002 to Clean Air Act violations and lying to federal agents about his work for AAR.

Valachovic said he was lured by cash. Tax-free.

"I generally worked a lot under the table," Valachovic said. "A friend of mine got a hold of me and said Anthony needed some guys to remove some asbestos. It started out at $13 an hour. A lot of it was under the table, right off the bat."

Without any training or a license, Valachovic said, he was put to work removing asbestos at a General Electric plant in Schenectady. He worked nights, when it was less likely for state or company inspectors to show up.

He said he worked under the name of a licensed employee. He picked up and bagged pieces of asbestos that had been ripped off the pipes by Korean immigrant laborers and left on the floor in foot-deep water.

A GE environmental manager who testified in the trial offered his own example of AAR's handiwork.

At one job at the GE Schenectady campus in 1998, federal agents discovered that AAR workers had left behind asbestos above the cafeteria salad bar, according to the GE manager.

A licensing scam

After his first few months, Valachovic said, Mongato suggested it was time for him to get a state license as an asbestos abatement handler.

When it came time to attend the training school run by AAR, Valachovic said, trainers told him not to worry if he didn't understand something. On the tests, trainers gave them the answers.

"Nobody ever studied one bit," he said. "Half the time we would go and have a beer."

Valachovic said the workers did not understand that asbestos, a cancer-causing material widely used as insulation on pipes and boilers until the 1970s, could be bad for their health.

"It was never explained to us like that," he said.

When he finally did quit in 1994, it wasn't because of the asbestos. He stormed off the job for good when a boss demanded that he handle a rooftop job. Valachovic said he's afraid of heights.

In his four years with American Manpower and AAR, Valachovic said, he did not wear a respirator on 90 percent of his jobs.

Valachovic said he made as much as $32 an hour on the books. But he said the best-paying work was under the table, when he'd collect $500 cash for five hours work, ripping asbestos out of old houses in Albany. None of it was done properly. In some cases, the asbestos was simply dumped in the trash.

Valachovic said he rarely saw inspectors from the state Labor Department, whose Asbestos Control Bureau regulates the industry in New York.

Mongato developed a warning system in case inspectors would come around, Valachovic said. Mongato would simply sit down outside the enclosed area where the work was done. If he saw an inspector approach, he would bang a door three times. That was the alert for workers to put on their respirators.

Once, AAR was caught breaking the laws at a Ford Motor Co. plant in Green Island in Albany County, according to testimony. A Ford representative cut open a chained door to find dry asbestos in a Dumpster. Irate, he demanded action from AAR.

A public firing

Thomas C. Reed, AAR's former general manager, testified about how AAR placated Ford. AAR called a hurry-up meeting with its supervisor on the job.

"We made this big, long, you know, yelling-at-him speech" right in front of the Ford manager, Reed testified. At the end of the meeting, Reed said, AAR fired its supervisor.

What the Ford guy didn't know was this: The "fired" manager was playing along and simply left that job for another AAR contract, Reed testified. It was a stunt AAR had pulled before, he said.

On other occasions, AAR officials didn't even try to be cagey, according to witnesses.

Reed testified about the removal of asbestos-covered boilers from Greenhaven Correctional Facility, a state prison in Stormville, Dutchess County.

The state paid $48,813 to AAR to dispose of the three, 50-ton boilers as hazardous waste. Reed testified AAR instead dumped them in a field it owned in Albany.

That worked until a state employee taking an asbestos training class from an AAR affiliate looked out a window and recognized the prison boilers, Reed said. Even after getting caught, he said, AAR didn't do the job properly.

Instead, Raul Salvagno and others took the boilers to a parking lot and cut them up, using no asbestos containment, Reed said. They sold the scrap metal for $8,000 to dealers who didn't know about the asbestos, he said.

Valachovic said such testimony makes him feel sick in a different way. He wants AAR and its owners to be held accountable.

"Right now, I've got spots on my lungs," he said. "I made good money. But what they did was a crock. If I could put them in one of those bags and let them suck in the air for a while, I'd like to do that. I definitely think they should go to jail for a while."

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