My turn: Tangling with the EPA

One man's view: You don't have to be guilty to be fined

Posted: Friday, April 21, 2006

I appreciate that the Empire recently reported what I hope will be the final story on the fire that struck the Tom Huntington family back in the summer of 2004. I appreciate your efforts to get both sides of the story. Unfortunately, the Environmental Protection Agency seems to want to gloss over some important details while making the people named in its suit look bad. Hopefully I can clarify some of those points and make the picture more accurate.

Sound off on the important issues at

First of all, your article has a minor error in it: You imply that EMPS Engineering was involved when it was not. I was personally involved but only as a concerned friend helping someone in need.

Putting that aside, let me outline some facts that should show innocence on the part of the three persons being fined.

• I was a leg man for the owner, running messages and reporting answers to the owner. This included picking up the city-required demolition permit and those efforts were my only involvement. I never set foot on the demolition site.

• The owner hired a local environmental consultant to sample for asbestos and to advise him and the contractor on the process for demolition.

• Asbestos needs to be greater than 1 percent of the waste volume to be classified as holding the risk of harm to one's health.

• The consultant took 20 some samples. The EPA rejected those samples due to what it called the "chain of custody." Some 20 more samples were taken with the same results. Asbestos was found only in some of the old floor tile on the first floor.

• No asbestos was found in the waste at the landfill but the material was declared to contain asbestos by the EPA simply because it was removed from the burn site prior to the EPA issuing its permit.

• Air monitors were installed around the perimeter of the building during the removal of the so-called contaminated waste and they detected no asbestos.

• The state Occupation Safety and Heath Administration did "red tag" the building for asbestos but later removed the tags, based on the samples taken by the consultant. In addition to removing the red tags, the state announced on Juneau radio as well as told the owner that the red tags were being removed and that demolition could proceed.

• Before the demolition of the upper floor began, the contractor and the environmental consultant visited the site together. The environmental consultant told the contractor exactly what he could do, which was remove the fire-damaged structure to the first-floor level where the tile existed. And that is exactly what the contractor did.

• Asbestos demolition experts were hired to remove the floor tile (in fact, the entire first floor) and clean up under the building to ensure against the possibility of asbestos contamination.

• No one from the city or state told me - nor did they tell either of the other two parties - that demolition work could not begin prior to the EPA giving permission to begin. Neither did the city nor state tell me, the owner or the contractor about needing to get the EPA involved. In fact, the city was pushing to have the "eyesore and public nuisance" removed quickly.

• The fire was very visible and everyone in Juneau knew about it. The EPA has a Juneau office but nothing was heard from it, locally or otherwise, until after the fact. It should have contacted the owner.

• The EPA said in its press release that it agreed to reduce the fine to about one-third of its original demand, which was $123,000, because we cooperated. The EPA implied that at first we were uncooperative. This is totally false, as our side was fully cooperative from the first time the EPA showed up. Our side even assisted the EPA in gaining access to the site and in making its analysis of the burn site and waste pile.

• One of the EPA's criteria for determining the dollar amount of the fine to be charged against a person accused of violating its regulations is - and this really seems un-American - "your ability to pay." So the fine it levies is not totally based on its perception of the level of harm done but on how much it thinks you will be willing to pay to get rid of the problem. At least that is my interpretation.

• After the EPA got involved, the inspector that came to Alaska from the Lower 48 made a statement that went something like this: "No demolition can take place ever with the EPA's permission." So if that is true, all you folks better watch out for big brother EPA - unless you are also totally innocent. Oh, I forgot, you don't have to be guilty to be fined by EPA.

• George Davidson is a Juneau resident, retired engineer and former Assembly member.

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