The workers sat down in the makeshift classroom, prepared to learn how to safely remove cancer-causing asbestos.
Instead, the instructor turned on a video of the 2004 action flick “Van Helsing.”
The owners of a Tacoma company that was among a mere handful certified by the state to train workers to inspect or handle asbestos pleaded guilty on Friday in Superior Court for faking training programs for years.
It’s just the latest in a string of issues nationwide with companies responsible for dealing with the banned but ubiquitous hazardous substance commonly found in ceilings, siding and insulation.
“We get a lot of calls on individuals who are cutting corners — either from a business or a colleague,” Tyler Amon, special agent in charge with the Environmental Protection Agency’s law-enforcement division in Seattle, said in an interview.
“But what we are focused on is where it’s concentrated in a criminal enterprise.”
The Tacoma company, Emergency Management Training, let workers skip training altogether or show up for as little as 30 minutes of an eight-hour course. Owners submitted false records to let workers avoid state-mandated follow-up. It forged documents so its own untrained employees could bid on a hazardous-materials-removal job for the military at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
The company even took money under the table so that uncertified contractors could evaluate schools and hospitals to see if they were asbestos-free.
“We found records going as far back as 2010 showing that these training classes were bad,” said Joshua Choate, the state assistant attorney general who prosecuted the case.
Officials said it’s too soon to say whether Environmental Management Training (EMT) helped expose workers or the public to harmful levels of asbestos. State and federal authorities are combing through records, trying to track all the homes, schools and businesses where unprepared contractors might have performed work.
But they say the problems with the Tacoma company are part of a larger pattern in an asbestos-removal industry that often operates outside the law.
“It is startling to me how many cases we have in this day and age where people still take that calculated risk,” Amon said.
In 2010, the owner of New England’s largest asbestos-training school was arrested after nearly two years on the run in the Dominican Republic. She’d sawed off an ankle bracelet and dyed her hair after skipping a sentencing hearing for her conviction for faking training classes for thousands of asbestos-removal workers in and around Boston.
In 2012, a Chattanooga, Tenn., company hired homeless men and untrained day laborers to illegally remove asbestos during the teardown of an old textile mill, sending harmful asbestos fibers floating through an entire neighborhood.
And just last month, EPA caught contractors using poorly trained workers who mishandled asbestos during a massive apartment renovation in Northern Virginia, potentially exposing many residents.
Impact in state
It’s not clear how widespread the problems are in Washington state.
Here, more than 3,100 people with 105 companies are certified by the state Department of Labor and Industries to handle or remove asbestos. Most of those workers take a 32-hour class taught by contractors, where they learn to seal off work areas in plastic, properly use masks, spread water to tamp down dust and use “negative air machines” to suck dangerous fibers into a filter.
Supervisors receive another eight hours of training, which includes required air monitoring, and must have 1,600 hours of experience. All are required to take regular refresher courses.
The reason: Minuscule asbestos fibers, once airborne, can settle in the lungs, and eventually cause deadly mesothelioma or other ailments. While most cases involve victims who suffer severe or longterm exposure, even brief encounters with asbestos can lead directly to disease.
Asbestos has been banned for decades but is still found in everything from vehicle brake pads to home siding. That’s why the state licenses businesses to teach asbestos-abatement workers how to remove the materials. Currently, only nine companies in the state teach those courses.
“The idea is to show them how to do the work in a way that will not be hazardous to them or the people around them and so when they are done it’s a clean space for people to go back into,” said Larry Gore, an industrial hygienist with Labor and Industries. “If they don’t do the work right, it has happened where we see the material getting out of the work space. We don’t like that.”
Labor and Industries performs occasional inspections of abatement contractors but can’t keep up with all the training classes.
“I think most of the time the only way we’re going to know if there’s a problem is if one of the guys in the training program has an issue with that and complains,” Gore said.
That’s what started the latest case. People complained to Gore’s team and those complaints found their way to EPA special agents, who began investigating.
With the help of confidential informants, current and former employees and search warrants, agents figured out that the Tacoma company, Emergency Management Training (EMT), and its owners, Tim Pinckney and Pamela Pepper, often got paid to do little or no training at all.
On some days, three people would show up for training, but EMT would list seven people as having attended; employees would fill in test answers for the absent students. Sometimes an EMT instructor would claim to have taught two separate eight-hour classes on the same day.
One informant told investigators that trainers once spent the class having students move company furniture.
One former worker, a receptionist, said Pinckney even ordered her to fake her own credentials so she could bid on a job to remove hazardous-waste tanks at Fort Lewis.
Another told investigators her boss once said to expect a student who was signed up for instruction to come by with money but not stay.
“A guy is going to come in here,” the boss told her, according to her statement to investigators. “Let him pay and leave.”
Many of the dozens of examples law enforcement uncovered involved people who were taking refresher classes. But some involved people skipping out on basic training.
“One of the worst things we saw was them not training people during the initial course,” Choate said. “There were people who were going out to do asbestos-abatement work who may not have known anything about what they’re doing at all.”
And improper handling and containment already is “a widespread problem in the asbestos industry as a whole,” Choate said.
On Friday, Pinckney and Pepper pleaded guilty to a combined 15 criminal charges in Superior Court in Tacoma.
Both were sentenced to home confinement after agreeing to help investigators track down records.
Investigators on Friday were quick to point out that many training companies in Washington were doing a standout job. But they also said it’s not clear how systemic issue like those with EMT really are.
“The reality is it is very difficult for us to get a handle on how widespread this is, both nationally and here in the Northwest,” Amon said. “The system is largely an honor-based system. Unless regulators or law enforcement are tipped off, we might not know about it.”