Two companies and two individuals entered no contest pleas July 19 to misdemeanor charges that they violated various asbestos laws in connection with the demolition of a portable building at San Benito High School, according to San Benito County District Attorney Candice Hooper.
The criminal complaints stemmed from work done in the summer of 2017 by asbestos consultant company EnviroScience, Inc., a Santa Clara County-based firm run by Hooman Sotoodeh-Khoo. Also named in the complaint is Alliance Environmental, LLC, a Los Angeles-based asbestos abatement firm hired by EnviroScience and Sotoodeh to abate any asbestos found in a portable building that had been slated for demolition at San Benito High School. The fourth defendant, Alfredo Rocha, was an employee of EnviroScience at the time.
According to Hooper, the District Attorney’s Office alleged numerous violations of asbestos regulations by the defendants, including failure to adequately survey for asbestos, failure to notify the air district of asbestos work requiring such notification, illegal disposal of asbestos-containing hazardous waste, unlawful emission of asbestos and failure to take corrective action concerning asbestos violations. Because of the facts of the case, each defendant was charged with a different set of crimes, she said.
As part of the resolution of the case, the defendants will each serve two years of probation and pay a total of approximately $170,000 in fines and costs, a portion of which will be directed to San Benito High School as a community service payment.
In addition, the individual defendants will serve a combined 360 hours of community service within San Benito County and, with the exception of Alliance Environmental Group, which cooperated with the investigation, the defendants will not be permitted to conduct asbestos work within the county while on probation, Hooper said.
The case was investigated by Michael Sheehan, the now-retired compliance program coordinator for the Monterey Bay Air Resources District, which enforces air quality laws and regulations in the San Benito-Monterey-Santa Cruz area, Hooper said.
The district attorney expressed her appreciation to Brett Henningsen, the demolition contractor on the project, for what she called “his crucial role in refusing to demolish the portable building after noticing the presence of asbestos, and for contacting Mr. Sheehan at the air resources district to alert him to the violations.”
“On behalf of the District Attorney’s Office and the people of San Benito County, I would like to commend Mr. Henningsen for notifying the air district about the asbestos issues that he witnessed,” Hooper said in a July 23 statement. “His presence of mind to recognize the asbestos danger and immediately report it not only prevented the likely release of asbestos materials, but also provided the information that prompted Mr. Sheehan’s investigation and resulted in today’s pleas.”
Hooper said Henningsen is being given a reward for his role in the successful outcome of the case.
Hooper also had praise for Matthew Carr, an environmental prosecutor who handled the case on behalf of San Benito County. Carr works as a circuit prosecutor for the California District Attorneys Association and assists smaller counties in prosecuting environmental cases.
The association’s Circuit Prosecutor Project, which recently celebrated its 20th year, provides environmental prosecutors to rural California counties where there are insufficient resources to hire prosecutors to pursue and prosecute violations of California’s environmental laws. Circuit prosecutors like Carr work under the direction of the county district attorney while prosecuting such cases, Hooper noted.
“We are extremely grateful for the expertise of Mr. Carr in helping us hold accountable the defendants in this case. We may be a small county, but with the assistance of the Circuit Prosecutor Project, we will never allow ourselves to be a dumping ground for those seeking to evade California’s environmental laws,” Hooper said.
Carr said he was “very gratified to be of assistance to the people of San Benito County.” The project’s mission, he said, “is to vigorously enforce the laws which protect our air, water and natural resources and also maintain a level playing field for those businesses who abide by our laws so that they are not undercut financially by those seeking to make money by cutting corners where our environment is concerned.”