It’s hard to know if the Buffalo inspectors who allowed cancer-causing asbestos to be released into the air at Kensington Heights got off easy with misdemeanor convictions, but with their pleas accepted, the judge needs to ensure that the sentences reflect the seriousness of the crime and the men’s level of culpability. This was no harmless accident.
The two inspectors, William Manuszewski and Donald Grzebielucha, pleaded guilty last week in connection with the disastrously mishandled project. They had been charged with felonies, including falsifying records.
Manuszewski’s lawyer, Michael J. Stachowski, said his client was “untrained and ill-equipped” for the job and decided to accept the plea. He will be allowed to keep his job. Grzebielucha is retired. Another defendant, Theodore Lehmann, also retired, is expected to enter a misdemeanor plea, as well.
Manuszewski and Grzebielucha pleaded guilty to negligent endangerment under the federal Clean Air Act and admitted putting other people at risk because of their actions. The plea deals, which do not admit to the falsifying allegations, were reached just days before the men were to go on trial before U.S. District Judge Richard J. Arcara.
The two were accused of releasing asbestos into the air at the 17-acre complex, which is located behind Erie County Medical Center and is also near three schools and a park frequently used by youth sports teams. It was the height of reckless indifference.
The brick apartment towers had been decaying for decades when city leaders proposed tearing them down and building a retirement community on the site. That was five years ago. The botched demolition effort resulted in the criminal charges, but it has also stalled redevelopment in a neighborhood that badly needs it.
Air samples from the neighborhood later indicated that asbestos levels inside the complex’s six towers exceeded federal standards but, fortunately, levels outside the complex did not. The fact remains that the demolition was marked by dangerous procedures.
Asbestos can cause asbestosis, which is an inflammation and scarring in the lungs that can make breathing difficult. It can also cause mesothelioma, a cancer that affects the lining of the lungs, chest cavity or abdomen, lung cancer and other lung problems.
Is anyone surprised that this happened in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Buffalo? There are all sorts of injustices and, given the potential for dire health consequences, environmental injustice must be viewed as deadly serious.
Arcara needs to evaluate the level of responsibility of these men and then issue sentences that make clear to others who would victimize poor neighborhoods – or wealthy ones – that they will pay a price they may be ill-equipped to afford.