Council member responds to airport facility asbestos investigation

Asbestos sample at ABIA Building. (Picture included in Asbestos and Lead-Containing Paint Survey Report)
Asbestos sample at ABIA Building. (Picture included in Asbestos and Lead-Containing Paint Survey Report)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — KXAN investigators are continuing to press city leaders for answers about an asbestos contamination at the airport that exposed 120 city workers for months. Renovation work at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport last year ended with major health concerns.

We learned ABIA changed its policy to check for the potentially cancer-causing material before beginning renovations in the future. The city performed an emergency cleanup of the maintenance building where this happened.

Eight employees in direct contact with the work area will have lifetime health checks. As a result of our report this week, the city is launching an internal investigation into the problem. This, after ABIA twice told KXAN “no workers” came forward with concerns about asbestos, and then changed its story, acknowledging two workers did come forward, worried about their health and safety.

After that switch and repeated requests to speak with airport management directly involved in the incident were turned down, KXAN reached out to every council member’s office and Mayor Steve Adler. Usually they speak for themselves because they’re elected officials and answer directly to the public, not the city manager. But here’s why this situation was different.

KXAN obtained a copy of the email where the interim city manager asked the mayor and council member to send media to the official city spokesperson because, “From our understanding, some of the questions being posed to you are legal in nature….”

If someone in the exposure incident at the airport violated the state’s asbestos rules, it could mean a $10,000 fine per day and two years jail time.

On Thursday, Ann Kitchen became the first city council member to respond to our investigation.

‘The city’s priority is people’s safety. I mean, bottom line. That’s it. And so our staff, our city manager, this is a top priority for her. To find out what happened, to make sure that workers are safe, and to make sure that it doesn’t happen again,” Kitchen said. “I’m confident that our city manager’s office and our staff will get to the bottom of this. And of course I’ve asked them to report to us, as have other council members.”

KXAN also reached out to the Austin Airport Advisory Commission for a response.

Our investigation began when a whistle-blower who worked at the maintenance facility, separate from the airport terminal, reached out, feeling as if management ignored concerns about asbestos. The city says it would never intentionally put workers at risk. It also admits, when workers came forward, management referred to a building survey more than a decade old that showed no asbestos in the work area.

Experts tell us old reports often miss this potentially dangerous material and a new survey should be done at the beginning of any construction project.

Keep in mind, tests showed no asbestos in the air. When asbestos is breathed in over long periods, it can cause health problems. That said, the test was done six months after construction began, during which time workers were exposed to the material.

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