EPA: Debris created risk of asbestos exposure

Tests under way to find out how much asbestos is in rubble at site of downtown fire

Posted: Friday, September 03, 2004

Crumbling asbestos fibers from debris piled at Front and Seward streets have posed a health hazard downtown and elsewhere in Juneau since the 108-year-old building at the corner was torn down last weekend, the Environmental Protection Agency has determined.

The commercial building, with 18 tenants, burned Aug. 15. On Thursday, the EPA said its owner and the people responsible for the demolition were at fault for failing to notify the federal agency of the pending demolition

Notification is required by law, according to a compliance order signed Thursday afternoon by Michael Bussell, director of the office of compliance and enforcement in Seattle.

The risk-level is unknown because tests are still being conducted to determine the amount of asbestos in the rubble, said John Pavitt, EPA air compliance inspector, from Anchorage.

The rubble is being kept wet to prevent a continued hazard.

Asbestos, a fiber once used for fireproofing and insulation, has been shown to cause lung cancer and asbestosis, a respiratory disease.

"We obviously are concerned that dust could get out in the public air and people could breathe it," Pavitt said.

Tom Findley, owner of the 101-year-old Valentine Building across Front Street from the debris pile, said he was surprised to hear of the EPA's conclusions.

"I'm also saddened," he said. He wanted to see the building torn down as soon as possible after the fire. "It's an eyesore."

Now he wants to know how much of the crumbling asbestos is in the pile. "It keeps getting sadder and sadder," he said.

Pavitt said asbestos had been found only in sealed floor tiles, as of late Thursday afternoon. Although not a risk in that form, tiles in the demolition rubble had been crushed and pulverized, so fibers could get into the dust and become airborne.

Pavitt said the compliance order allows the owner, Tom Huntington, to clear the site at any time. But it will require people trained to work with asbestos, and they won't be allowed to dump the debris in Juneau.

Huntington could not be reached at his home for comment about the EPA order or when work to remove the debris would continue.

Hugh Grant of DJG Construction, the demolition contractor named in the order, said he met with Huntington Thursday afternoon. But Grant didn't know how long the debris would remain at the site.

"I don't think that there was ever any intention to do anything in violation of the law," he said.

Grant said he was unaware of the requirement to notify the EPA 10 working days before tearing down a building. He was not involved with the demolition that began the day after the fire, he said. He said he had no indication that anything was wrong until an EPA inspector showed up at the site on Monday.

Grant said he believed his company's work touched the tiles.

George Davidson of EMPS Engineering, who took out the Aug. 20 demolition permit and was named in the order, could not be reached for comment Thursday night.

The order's findings determined that an inspector from the state Department of Labor, who allowed employees to enter the building on Aug. 20, told someone in the project that an EPA notice was required before demolition.

Patrick Wallace, an EPA inspector from Seattle, observed Monday that most of the building had been knocked to the ground. Heavy equipment was running over the debris, breaking it into small, dry pieces that failed to hold dust.

Wallace also saw debris scooped up and dropped into waste-hauling trucks.

"The trucks were not covered, and Mr. Wallace observed dust blowing out of the trucks as they drove away on public streets," the order said.

Wallace collected samples of the building's debris at Capital Landfill and informed the landfill manager that it may contain asbestos. He stopped the facility from accepting any more of the demolished building.

Because there is no landfill in Juneau approved to accept asbestos-containing material, Pavitt said the debris must be sent somewhere else.

• Tony Carroll can be reached at tony.carroll@juneauempire.com.

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