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Lawrence Aviation owner charged with illegal removal of asbestos

Gerald Cohen leaves federal court in Central Islip

Gerald Cohen leaves federal court in Central Islip on Dec. 11, 2014. Credit: Ed Betz

The owner of Lawrence Aviation, the former airplane parts manufacturing plant in Port Jefferson Station, was charged Thursday with violating the federal Clean Air Act by illegally removing asbestos from a building on the company's grounds, according to officials and court papers.

The owner, Gerald Cohen, 81, had originally been investigated in May by the state Department of Labor in connection with the asbestos removal on the recommendation of the federal Environmental Protection Administration. The state Labor Department regulates asbestos removal at New York work sites.

EPA investigators had come across Cohen, along with Thomas Datre Jr., a Ronkonkoma contractor -- who figures prominently in other recent unrelated state criminal cases -- and one of his unnamed employees dressed in ordinary work clothes, removing the asbestos from the piping in a 124,000-square-foot former metal-shaping building, officials have said. Datre Jr. and the employee were in what sources described "as a cloud of white dust" of the material created by their activity.

Datre Jr. faces unrelated state charges of felony criminal mischief in connection with illegal dumping in Islip and felony second-degree grand larceny for failure to pay employees adequate wages. He has pleaded not guilty to those charges.

In court at Cohen's arraignment, Eastern District federal prosecutor James Miskiewicz said that Datre and his unnamed employee were not charged in the case because the employee had asked Cohen if they were removing asbestos and Cohen had replied no. The employees believed him, Miskiewicz said.

Sources said that Cohen gave a more detailed account to convince them that the white powder was harmless and did not contain asbestos. Cohen falsely told them that the plant could not have had any asbestos present because it used titanium in the production of airplane parts, and titanium and asbestos could not be present in the same place, the sources said.

Cohen hired Datre Jr. to salvage the metal for resale from the pipes and the boilers in the abandoned building, which required the removal of the asbestos coating, according to the indictment. But Cohen did not tell Datre and his employee that EPA officials had told him the pipes and boilers were insulated in asbestos, the indictment said.

Cohen, an MIT graduate whose operation had once been a major Long Island defense subcontractor, pleaded not guilty to the felony charge of "intentionally violating the asbestos work practice emissions standards of the Clear Air Act" at arraignment in federal court in Central Islip before Magistrate Steven Locke.

The Clean Air Act says asbestos removers must give the government written notice of their intention to remove asbestos; requires wetting down the asbestos to keep it from being released into the air; and have a person present who is trained in removing asbestos, according to the indictment,

Cohen's attorney, Terrence Buckley, of Commack, declined to comment afterward, as did prosecutor Miskiewicz.

Datre Jr.'s attorney Kevin Kearon, reached by telephone afterward, said, federal prosecutors interviewed his client "and they found him credible and also a victim."

State officials who were investigating the situation could not immediately be reached for comment.

Cohen was released on $250,000 bail, pending future hearings.

He faces up to 5 years in prison if he is convicted of the asbestos charge.

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