A Northeast commercial real estate owner is facing the possibility of decades in federal prison and a $1.25 million fine after a grand jury indicted him last week for removing asbestos in violation of the Clean Air Act.
David Mermelstein, 53, of Willow Grove, allegedly hired four day laborers to remove asbestos insulation from a former furniture warehouse at 10175 Northeast Ave. in 2009 and 2010, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said on Aug. 27.
That’s the same property where a neighborhood teen allegedly shot his longtime friend 10 times in the head on Aug. 19 in a dispute over a stolen PlayStation video game console. Authorities have drawn no connection between the slaying and the environmental case.
The property is 11.7 acres and is vacant according to the city’s Office of Property Assessment. The indictment alleges that Mermelstein bought the site in 2001, when it had a “large, old-furniture warehouse” with “insulated pipes that ran throughout the building.” The insulation was made of or contained asbestos, according to the charging document.
From September 2009 through April 2010, Mermelstein allegedly hired four “day laborers” who were not licensed in asbestos removal to rip the insulated pipes out of the building “in a manner that did not comply with asbestos work practice standards.” Asbestos removal is regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the city’s Department of Public Health because the substance is a hazardous air pollutant.
Mermelstein allegedly directed workers to cut, break and rip dry asbestos, allowing the fibers to drop to the floor. They swept the debris and disposed of it in a dumpster for regular trash pick-up or hauled it to unknown sites, the indictment states. Fibers also were left strewn about the interior and exterior of the warehouse.
The exposed workers were not informed that they were removing the hazardous materials, according to the indictment.
The city became aware of the illegal asbestos work and on March 4, 2010, ordered Mermelstein to stop it, but the work continued, according to the indictment.
The five-count indictment accuses Mermelstein of failing to notify the EPA in advance about the demolition project, failing to wet and carefully lower to the ground asbestos-containing materials, failure to keep asbestos wet until properly contained and disposed, discharging asbestos into the outside air and failure to deposit asbestos at an appropriate disposal site.
If convicted, Mermelstein faces up to 25 years in prison and a $1.25 million fine.
He is also in dire straits with the tax man. According to the city’s Revenue Department, he owes $193,277.52 in property taxes, interest, penalties and other charges on the site. That balance includes about $148,000 in principal.
The taxes are up to date through 2009, but the city has placed liens on the property for 2010, ’11 and ’12. The 2013 taxes are unpaid, too. Ironically, Mermelstein is due to see a big reduction in taxes under the city’s new full-value system. Based on a tax rate of 1.34 percent and a property value of $1.603 million, the 2014 tax bill should be $21,480.20, less than half of the $46,900.80 due in 2013. ••