Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Soldier's Home Superintendent Morin's Asbestos Charges Not Dismissed

On Dec. 18, 2008, Paul Morin, 56, of Chicopee, Massachusetts was indicted by a federal grand jury for reportedly violating the Clean Air Act, a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) provision made law in 1990 by the U.S. Congress.
The Act has a number of provisions, particularly several governing asbestos remediation and removal, under the National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants, or NESHAP rules, and this is the part Morin violated by improperly removing a wall containing asbestos in a state-run veteran's hospice care center known as the Soldier's Home. Morin had been superintendent at the Home for a decade before the incident.
In October of 2007, Morin - who had returned from a year's sabbatical only two months before, and accepted a position as national commander of the American Legion - reportedly ordered maintenance workers at the facility to remove the wall using sledgehammers during a renovation of the facility, even though he had been warned that such a process could disturb asbestos insulation inside the wall, potentially exposing both untrained and unprotected workers, and the Home's occupants, to asbestos contamination.
Asbestos was widely used during most of the last century, both in building insulation and floor and ceiling (acoustical) tiles. Undisturbed, it is relatively harmless. Once broken or released, however, its fibers - ingested or inhaled - can lead to lung and digestive system cancers, notably pleural mesothelioma, a cancer of the mesothelial lining of the lungs that is generally regarded as lethal. Fewer than ten percent of mesothelioma victims survive more than five years. Long exposure to asbestos is also the primary cause of asbestosis, though a single exposure can potentially result in mesothelioma.
The removal triggered an investigation by the state's Environmental Crimes Strike Force, working for the Department of Health and Human Services, or DHHS, which subsequently resulted in an indictment against Morin alleging that improper procedures ultimately resulted in an asbestos abatement project (by a licensed contractor) that ended up costing the Home more than $18,000.
The DHHS is also the agency overseeing the Soldier's Home, and as a result of the indictment Morin was placed on paid administrative leave, at $114,345 a year, pending his arraignment on Dec. 30 of 2008.
Deputy Superintendent Mike Pasterczyk was selected to replace him in the interim, and services at the Home continued without interruption. Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley's office was slated to handle the case.
On Jan. 8 of 2009, Morin was arraigned before Judge Constance M. Sweeney in Hampden County Superior Court and pleaded innocent. Morin was subsequently released on his own personal recognizance. Joseph D. Eisenstadt, acting on behalf of the Attorney General's office, did not request bail.
Legal arguments in Morin's defense pointed out that at no time were asbestos levels over the EPA's permissible amount, and that Morin's failure to comply with NESHAP regulations was the result of what his defense described as "virtual alphabet soup" of regulators during the entire time the work was being completed.
In fact, according to Mass. Department of Environmental Protection Agency (DEP) spokesman Edmund J. Coletta, there were no regulators at the time Morin violated all the DEP's protocols, which require that worker's wear protective equipment, the area be confined, and asbestos wetted during removal and disposed of properly.
On August 7, Judge C. Jeffrey Kinder of Hampden Superior Court refused to dismiss the charges against Morin, saying his defense lawyer did not make any points worthy of his (Kinder's) consideration. Morin's case is scheduled for a final pre-trial conference Sept. 14, with a full trial on Oct. 5.
If convicted, Morin faces a fine of up to $25,000 and up to one year in jail, according to a spokesman from the Mass. AG's office. A spokeswoman for the Mass. Executive Office of Health and Human Resources also reports that Morin is actually on unpaid leave, which conflicts with earlier reports.

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