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2 charged in asbestos removal

The illegal removal of the carcinogen asbestos and unpermitted renovations are part of a criminal case against two people involved with the former Cambria Air Force Station, a Cold War-era military radar site.

The property’s manager, Luther Sherman Akers, 68, is accused of felony illegal disposal of hazardous waste asbestos on the property and two misdemeanor land use violations.

Property owner Bernd Schaefers, 68 — who was a producer of the 1984 film “The NeverEnding Story,” as well as a 1986 motion picture starring Sean Connery, “The Name of the Rose” — faces two misdemeanor charges involving coastal zone land use law. He isn’t being charged with illegal asbestos removal, however.

County code enforcement officer Harley Voss alleged Schaefers and Akers both are responsible for unpermitted renovations on two buildings and a septic system on the property.

Property history

The 34-acre property, now with deteriorating buildings, was operated by the Air Force from the 1940s until 1980. It has a 360-degree view of the Pacific Ocean and surrounding mountains.

During the station’s heyday, officers and enlisted men operated the station and scanned for enemy aircrafts and missiles.

In their down time, they enjoyed on-site amenities including a bowling alley, a movie theater, an outdoor basketball court and a putting green, according to a 1968 Telegram-Tribune article.

Asbestos was commonly used in construction of barracks and other buildings, as well as for pipe insulation. The mineral fiber was malleable and fireproof, but now is widely known as a carcinogen.

Asbestos is not harmful unless it is disturbed through construction or demolition and becomes airborne; long-term exposure can cause lung cancer.

Schaefers bought the old military station for $2 million in 2004.

A previous owner had received a $3.5 million estimate in the early 2000s for the cost to clean up the asbestos on the site, according to an incident report.

In 2007, Schaefers invited about 50 Cal Poly students to the property to help them brainstorm plans on how to renovate the site, possibly for an education facility for at-risk youth.

That spurred then-county Public Health Officer Greg Thomas to close the old station to the public, citing health risks. That decision remains in effect today, county officials say.

The allegations

Schaefers’ attorney, James McKiernan, didn’t respond to phone and e-mail requests for comment this week.

Public defender James Maguire said he had a conflict of interest in his representation of Akers, and a new lawyer has been assigned to the case under court defense contracting procedures — but it’s unclear who that lawyer is.

The incident report details the suspected illegal removal of asbestos under Akers’ supervision.

More recently, an investigative report filed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency states that samples of materials on the property collected by the county’s Air Pollution Control District were tested and showed that “significant quantities of (asbestos) were illegally removed.”

About 20 people lived on the property between 2005 and 2007. They performed work, including construction, cooking and gardening, Akers told an EPA investigator.

One former resident told investigators that she received room and board at the facility in exchange for work and “recalled Akers showing her how to remove insulating material from an old pipe that had been removed from a building,” according to the report.

Akers advised the woman not to breathe when cutting into the “pipe stuff,” the report states, which she explained meant avoiding “breathing in too much of the dust.”

Schaefers told The Tribune in 2007 that he had hired an abatement company to deal with the asbestos and that he was unaware of any illegal asbestos disposal.

“(Akers) did not know which buildings were abated of asbestos,” the report stated.

Caretaker’s statement

Akers told an EPA investigator that he was raised on a farm in Mississippi and although he was not “book smart, he had a mechanical and construction background,” according to a report documented by the agency.

Akers recalled an asbestos abatement company coming and removing mold from the buildings, including walls to access old pipes, and the workers wore white suits and used air purification systems.

But he said he didn’t know the scope of the previous abatement and didn’t see any survey results.

Akers said though he was not officially the manager, he was its “eyes and ears.”

He told the EPA that he and Schaefers were planning to create a trade school on the property and those interested were Cal Poly officials and people from Las Vegas.

The report details work that included his personal removal of tiles and walls from a dining hall and directing others to remove building walls.

County officials, after serving a search warrant, said they found dark-colored trash bags stuffed in an electrical pull box that they believed contained asbestos.

The EPA later confirmed through testing that significant quantities of asbestos were illegally removed from the station.

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