Businesses settle case over asbestos after '04 fire

$43,700 fine less than half what EPA originally proposed

Posted: Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Three Juneau business operators have settled a federal case against them involving 2004 asbestos violations at Juneau's demolished downtown Skinner building.

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The defendants agreed to pay $43,700 to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency - a 65 percent reduction from the federal agency's originally proposed $123,387 penalty. Michael Bogart, the regional EPA administrator in Seattle, signed the settlement last Wednesday.

The three accused of the asbestos violations include the Huntington Family Ltd. Partnership, which owned the historic building destroyed by fire in 2004; Hugh Grant, of DJG Construction; and George Davidson, of EMPS Engineering, all of Juneau.

The violations occurred while the defendants took down the Skinner building's remains, according to EPA.

The defendants' attorney, Rick Nelson of Juneau, said Monday that the reduced civil payment to the EPA indicates the case wasn't as strong as the federal agency originally claimed.

At the time of the violations, the defendants were responding to an emergency by taking down a structurally unsound building, Nelson said.

"They were doing the best they could under the circumstances," Nelson said.

The EPA contends that the penalty was reduced for different reasons.

"We looked at a number of factors," said John Pavitt, an EPA air compliance inspector based in Anchorage. For example, the businessmen readily complied with a cleanup order once they received notice of the violations, Pavitt said.

The EPA also considered "how much money and effort (the defendants) had gone through to clean up the mess," Pavitt said. The defendants ended up paying significantly more to address the violations than they would have if they had performed a proper initial cleanup, Pavitt explained.

The defendants paid "hundreds of thousands of dollars" to remove more than 200 tons of asbestos-contaminated debris from the Juneau landfill, in addition to removing 1,000 cubic yards of asbestos-contaminated debris remaining at the Skinner building demolition site, Pavitt said. The defendants shipped the debris to a Washington state dump. A proper asbestos removal would segregate "clean" debris from the asbestos, and would have cost "tens of thousands" instead, Pavitt said.

EPA tests indicated that an elevated amount of asbestos, a federally regulated carcinogen, was present in old floor tiling at the demolition site. Dust from the site, as well as trucks carrying debris to the dump, posed a public health hazard, according to EPA.

The defendants do not believe they polluted the air, Nelson said. The tiling wasn't broken up enough to have released the hazard to the air, he said.

Pavitt disagreed, saying asbestos in the tile had "crumbled" and posed an airborne risk of human exposure.

In a similar case in Ketchikan, a Best Western operator recently agreed to pay a $33,000 penalty for illegal asbestos removal during a renovation project.

The two cases underscore the need to closely follow EPA's requirements for asbestos in advance of demolition, Pavitt said.

In both situations, the EPA was not properly notified of the demolition and neither project had a trained supervisor on site to make sure asbestos was handled properly, Pavitt said.

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