She 'harmed so many. And we will catch her'

North Andover woman sought in EPA manhunt; bogus asbestos removal classes put thousands at risk

By Beth Daley
Globe Staff / May 17, 2009
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Days before she was to be sentenced for one of the country's most egregious environmental crimes, North Andover resident Albania Deleon begged for the court's mercy.

"I pray that God will forgive my soul," she wrote in a three-page handwritten letter to US District Court Judge Nathaniel M. Gorton, "and allow me to atone the rest of my life repaying and repairing the harm I have done. This is my solemn promise."

Then the 39-year-old mother sawed off her ankle monitor and disappeared into a cool March day, becoming one of the US Environmental Protection Agency's most wanted fugitives.

Deleon left behind not only her 3-year-old son, but hundreds, maybe thousands, of people who face a heightened risk of lung cancer because of her crimes.

Deleon operated New England's largest asbestos removal training school out of an attractive downtown Methuen storefront from 2001 to 2007. But training was a misnomer: Instead, Deleon and her assistants would often simply sell, for $400, certificates saying the holder was qualified to remove insulation, flooring, and other construction material containing deadly asbestos fibers. Federal officials estimate at least 2,500 people received fraudulent certificates from Deleon.

Those people - most illegal immigrants, according to federal officials - then went in to hundreds of schools, hospitals, churches, libraries, and homes throughout New England to remove asbestos. Most of them lacked training in even the most basic safety precautions.

Officials believe the heath risks to people in those buildings - from Beverly High School students to Roslindale Public Library patrons - are minimal; most were not directly exposed to the asbestos-laced dust kicked up in the removal process. But there is deep concern that the workers, most of them young men from Central America, breathed the fibers, which can lodge in the lungs and lead to death decades later. Many of those workers, it turned out, had never even been told how to properly wear a respirator.

Equally troubling is that they may have exposed their families to the cancer risk. Asbestos workers, if not properly trained, can inadvertently carry the fibers home on their clothes or hair.

"The scope of this is enormous," said Michael Hubbard, special agent in charge of the EPA's Criminal Investigation Division in New England, whose office arrested Deleon in 2007. "And the biggest victims in this entire house of greed are the illegal aliens who did not receive training and were placed in very hazardous working conditions - many did not know what they were dealing with."

Deleon's company was called Environmental Compliance Training, or ECT, and, according to court documents, her scheme worked like this: She and her assistants would fill in answers on tests that workers needed to take and write passing grades on top. She then filed copies in her office to fool state auditors. She also helped arrange for the workers to receive false Social Security numbers and other identification required by state officials to receive asbestos removal licenses.

Then, she put most of them to work through her temporary staffing agency, Methuen Abatement Staffing, and fed day laborers to other companies, including some of New England's largest asbestos removal contractors.

Now, as law enforcement agents launch a massive, three-nation manhunt for Deleon, her story illustrates the tremendous amount of damage one unscrupulous person can wreak at the intersection of public health and the environment.

Anything for a job
The two men, standing at the counter of a Lawrence day labor company, desperately wanted a paycheck. Would they be willing, the clerk asked, to remove asbestos from buildings?

Absolutely, the workers said, according to an asbestos contractor who witnessed the exchange in 2004 and a court affidavit from EPA special agent Michael Usovicz. It was a lucrative offer: Asbestos removal can pay around $15 an hour. The clerk asked whether the men had the required 32-hour training certificates. No, the men said, and left.

The next day they were back with freshly issued - and back-dated - certificates from ECT, Deleon's training school, according to the court affidavit.

"She was just selling them to anyone who wanted them," said the asbestos contractor, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity. "And these workers who didn't know what they were doing would go work all over the place."

With an certificate from ECT, it was easy to find a job.

More than a third of the 12,750 asbestos worker licenses and renewals issued in Massachusetts between 2002 and 2007 went to ECT "graduates." In New Hampshire, it was more than two-thirds.

Environmental health officials and contractors say there is no reason to panic about the risk to the general public. That is because most workers hired through Deleon's operation were overseen by legitimately trained supervisors from larger contracting firms who knew how to seal off asbestos fibers from the rest of a building during removal. Plus, most of the work was done during off-hours when the buildings were empty, and independent consultants tested the air during and after the work was completed.

Yet environmental and public health experts say untrained workers were undoubtedly a danger to themselves - and possibly to their families.

Numerous attempts by the Globe to locate workers, largely illegal immigrants, were unsuccessful.

The training that should have been given each worker included lessons in the danger of asbestos exposure; hands-on practice using protective gear; procedures for decontaminating oneself at the end of the day; and techniques such as wetting down the asbestos material being removed so that fibers are not released into the air.

Armando Gaitan, an asbestos training coordinator for the Institute for Environmental Education in Wilmington, a respected training school, met many ECT certificate holders when they later took a required eight-hour refresher course.

"I found they weren't trained at all," said Gaitan. "I had to start at step number one. What is asbestos? Why is it a problem to you? "

Gaitan said some workers told him they sometimes took off respirators when it got hot at job sites. He also found many ECT certificate holders who didn't know how to properly put on a respirator, even after working with asbestos longer than a year.

"They just didn't know the danger," Gaitan said.

A clever woman
Deleon arrived in the United States from the Dominican Republic around 1991. Settling in with her extended family around Lawrence, the naturalized citizen's entrepreneurial drive was evident by 1999 when she opened her temporary employment agency and soon after, a cleaning service, according to state corporation records. The asbestos training school opened in 2001. By 2005, Deleon had branched out to open Lawrence's Mambo Nightclub.

She married, bought a white split-level home in Salem, N.H., and had a child. To state asbestos officials, Deleon's was just one of many small businesses that saw opportunity in the lucrative world of asbestos abatement.

Asbestos had been used in a variety of materials for decades, but by the 1970s the government began banning it because of its cancer risk. Now, it is removed before renovation or demolition projects that could release the invisible fibers into the air. Last year, there were 14,000 asbestos removal projects in Massachusetts alone, according to state records.

To open a state-approved asbestos removal training school, Deleon had to file an array of documents - detailed qualifications of her instructors, copies of training manuals, and the test she intended to administer - with the state Division of Occupational Safety. Schools have to re-apply every year and let state officials know when courses were offered, who took them, and who received a required passing grade of 70.

Deleon did conduct some legitimate training classes, and that had the effect of providing cover for her fraud, state investigators said. A class would be held, and perhaps five people would attend - yet she would tell the state nine people were there and passed the test. Those in the class paid $350 for their certificates, those who didn't attend paid $400. And authorities said she kept two sets of books, paying many of her employees $8 to $15 a hour under the table. Federal officials estimate she avoided paying more than $1 million in taxes and workers' compensation insurance.

State occupational safety officials said they visited Deleon at least twice to examine her operation and deemed it legitimate because classes were being held when they visited and she kept good records of students and certificates.

But by 2005, Brian Wong, chief of investigations and enforcement for the office, flagged a group of suspicious identification papers from ECT certificate holders. He called Hubbard's EPA office, who had already begun investigating Deleon.

Later, Wong made a surprise visit to the training school on a night when a class was supposed to be in session. No one was there. He went back the next afternoon - and found students. They said they had been in class the previous night. "I said, 'really?' " said Wong. The state closed the school for three months.

After ECT re-opened, Wong found the same problem and began the process of revoking Deleon's license. But by that time, the EPA's criminal investigation division was about to crack the case.

A Guatemalan man who worked for Deleon had agreed to help EPA agents in exchange for a delay in his deportation. He arranged for a "friend" - really an undercover agent - to meet with Deleon and an office worker in September 2006. There the agent was handed a completed asbestos worker's test with a grade of 80, according to court records. He paid $400 and was given a certificate, according to the records. The transaction was captured in an undercover video.

Authorities arrested Deleon at her home in June 2007. She was convicted in November 2008 of 28 felony charges, and prosecutors Jonathan F. Mitchell of the US attorney's office and Peter W. Kenyon of the EPA recommended she be sent to prison for more than seven years.

Another broken promise
After her trial, Deleon seemed to understand the magnitude of her misdeeds. Shortly before her sentencing, she penned the letter to Gorton.

"I commit myself to work ceacelessly [sic] to make restitution to the government and to the keeper of my soul until I draw my last breath life," she wrote.

And then, two days before she was all but certain to be sent to prison, she was gone.

So, too, are many of the workers who held ECT certificates. State officials have tried to find them, to warn them not to smoke; given their asbestos exposure, it could dramatically increase their risk of cancer.

Those ECT workers who did turn up have been required to take a proficiency exam and, if they failed, to take a training class. Because licenses are only for one year, Wong is confident ECT certificate holders have now been retrained or left the asbestos business.

Meanwhile, authorities' search for Deleon continues. The EPA's Criminal Investigation Division, the US marshal's office, and other federal agencies are following tips from Lawrence to Canada to the Dominican Republic.

In April, Deleon was named to the EPA's most wanted list, joining a cast of characters that include a man whose smuggling of oxygen containers onto a plane allegedly contributed to 110 deaths. Wanted posters with Deleon's photo are at Canadian border-entry points.

Since her arrest, Deleon's home in New Hampshire has been sold in foreclosure. Her young son is being raised by her husband in a North Andover condominium complex. The Methuen storefront that housed her business is empty.

"She exploited so many people and harmed so many," said EPA's Hubbard. "And we will catch her."

Beth Daley can be reached at Globe correspondent Bina Venkataraman contributed to this report.