A Colorado man accused of impersonating a licensed asbestos technician has been indicted for setting off an emergency asbestos incident. A grand jury voted to indict Michael Merit of Parker, Colorado, after he took on a job from a local firm in charge of demolishing trailer homes in the nearby town of Elizabeth. Resource Center, the company that hired Mr. Merit, was led to believe that he had a state license to inspect structures for asbestos and could conduct air quality tests and other asbestos testing on the homes targeted for demolition.
According to the indictment, Mr. Merit carried out asbestos tests on the mobile homes from November 2007 until January 2008. Instead of using proper techniques to implement the tests, Mr. Merit allegedly used bogus testing methods and provided false lab reports stating that no asbestos was present in the targeted structures. The indictment also stated that he signed documents allowing Resource Center to demolish the homes and sent the false reports to the state Department of Public Health and Environment.
In Colorado, as with most other states, demolition firms are not allowed to raze an older structure without a certified asbestos inspection. The measure, which is also enforced at the federal level by the US environmental Protection Agency, is in place to prevent the dangerous dust from becoming airborne and affecting demolition workers. Workers who handle asbestos must use special breathing masks and wear protective coveralls to prevent them from inhaling the fibers and contracting serious respiratory disorders.
The state health department authorized the demolitions based on the fraudulent documentation. After the company leveled three of the houses, a neighbor notified the state about the potential presence of asbestos in the demolished structures. State officials ordered a halt to the demolitions and declared an asbestos emergency. When state investigators arrived at the site, they determined that the debris from the demolished mobile homes contained over 160 square feet of asbestos-laced materials.
Inspectors determined that the circumstances merited an environmental emergency due to the “sudden discharge of a hazardous substance”. Air quality tests revealed high levels of asbestos in and around the debris. Since the company did not know about the asbestos, they did not exercise the required precautions, such as wetting down the debris to prevent hazardous fibers from becoming airborne, nor did they use waste receptacles specifically designed to contain asbestos dust.
The state health department, the Environmental Crime Task Force and the state prosecutor’s office conducted the subsequent criminal investigation into Mr. Merit’s alleged fraud. Prosecutors have yet to set a trial date for Mr. Merit and have not announced any criminal charges against Resource Center. The health department and the environmental agencies are reviewing the case to determine if the company knowingly violated any rules or if they were unwitting victims.
Many older structures, including trailer homes, contain asbestos as part of wall insulation, ceiling tiles and carpet backing. When asbestos fibers become airborne, the thin slivers can work their way into the lungs. The most serious disease associated with asbestos exposure is mesothelioma, a form of cancer that targets the fluid lining around the lungs. Patients with malignant mesothelioma typically live less than a year.