Asbestos exposures proliferate in city buildings, affect up to 200

Asbestos abatement at an AFD training facility at 517 S. Pleasant Valley Rd. in June of 2016.
Asbestos abatement at an AFD training facility at 517 S. Pleasant Valley Rd. in June of 2016. (City of Austin)

Highlights


AUSTIN (KXAN) -- When the Austin Water Utility directed more than a dozen of its employees to pull down a ceiling, remove furniture and sweep a small south Austin utility building in July, none of those employees knew the room was already contaminated with asbestos.

Several of the workers said they were not given the proper protective equipment. After being told they may have been exposed to asbestos, the workers fear for their health, according to workplace injury incident forms obtained by KXAN.

“I wore my dust mask for the majority of the day, but I did take it off from time to time during breaks. I guess that doesn’t really matter since they aren’t approved for asbestos,” one employee wrote in a form. “By the end of the day, I was drenched in sweat. My jeans and shirt were both dripping and completely covered in dust, dirt and asbestos, apparently.”

And the 20 Austin Water workers are far from alone.

A six-month KXAN investigation has uncovered a string of asbestos contaminations in at least four different city departments dating back nearly two years. The exposures potentially affected up to 200 employees, and they each have similarities.

Several city employees, who spoke with KXAN on a condition of anonymity because they fear retaliation, said individual departments cut corners, bypassed protocols and ignored warnings that could have prevented the asbestos disturbances and possible exposures.

“This is abnormal,” said city spokesman David Green, regarding the series of asbestos exposures.

After KXAN began inquiring at multiple departments and requesting interviews for this report, the Office of the City Manager in October halted all interviews and said the city would not comment further until it took stock of the situation with its own “executive review.” The city said the review, which was spurred by KXAN’s investigation, would cover the four departments and likely wrap up by the end of the year.

City Council Member Kathie Tovo said she is glad the city manager’s office has stepped in to take a look at the asbestos contaminations.

“I would anticipate that if there is a need for a response she will take appropriate action,” Tovo said, referencing Interim City Manager Elaine Hart.

In a previous written statement, the city said employee safety is a top priority, and the city would never intentionally expose its employees to asbestos.

"The City is committed to improving internal processes, training, and communication to ensure our high standards are met for a safe working environment for all staff,” a city spokesperson said in a written statement to KXAN.

So far, KXAN has found asbestos contamination incidents at the Aviation Department, Fire Department, Austin Water and Parks and Recreation Department.

Parks and Recreation and AFD have not acknowledged to KXAN if any city employees were possibly exposed to asbestos.

In certain cases, it appears department employees proceeded with work that was denied, or they never submitted necessary requests to start work in the first place.

“I just want it to stop. Period. Just stop. Don't do it anymore. If the building needs to be shut down, they need to be shut down,” said one worker who said he witnessed unauthorized construction at an East Austin auditorium. “At the end of the day, all for what? For what? What did that project mean so much that it put people’s lives in danger?”

Timeline of Events

Request Denied

City policies and state laws set strict guidelines for renovations and construction on public buildings. Before construction starts, departments must submit a work request and have a survey done to identify possible asbestos-containing material.

In Austin, every work request for a city-owned building is sent to the Building Services Department. Wade Mullin, the city’s asbestos manager, oversees approval and denial of asbestos work requests.

Such requests may be denied, if, for instance, an asbestos survey has not been performed or there may be asbestos involved in the scope of the work.

Only licensed individuals in a contained environment are allowed to disturb asbestos, Mullin said. The city has used asbestos contractors and consultants to survey and gather information on 10 million square feet of office space, he said.

“It’s important to follow the work request process because that allows us to take the responsibility, which we’re licensed to do under state law, to make the determination of whether any asbestos-containing materials would be disturbed during the work,” Mullin said.

Asbestos is a commercial name for six naturally occurring minerals that are ideal for use in building materials. When asbestos is handled, it can break apart into microscopic shreds that can enter the lungs and cause deadly illnesses including cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Typically severe illness is caused by prolonged exposure to airborne asbestos; however, no level of exposure is safe.

It does not appear Parks and Recreation followed city policy when it began work in a side room of the auditorium. The work was part of a project to turn the side room, called the Hall of Honor, into a youth sound studio for the nonprofit Notes for Notes at 2300 Rosewood Ave.

On Dec. 8, 2016, a Parks and Recreation maintenance supervisor submitted a work request seeking approval for renovations in the Hall of Honor. The scope of work would included penetrating walls for electrical and HVAC, as well as floor and ceiling material removal. The request specifically said the materials that could be disturbed included “drywall, joint compound, drop ceiling and flooring,” according to the request.

The request said the job would begin Jan. 5, 2017, but it seems the team started weeks early and without approval. The facility services team “prepared” the work area in mid-December 2016, and the preparations included removing “furniture, flooring and ceiling tiles,” said Parks and Recreation spokesman John Nixon in an email.

City records show the work was not approved. Mullin denied the work request on Dec. 29 and said, “We currently do not have survey information on materials that are scheduled to be disturbed.”

The Texas Asbestos Health Protection Act requires public buildings that may have asbestos to be surveyed by a licensed inspector prior to construction and renovation. Violations of asbestos law can carry a $10,000 per day penalty or up to two years in jail, according to state statute.

One worker with knowledge of the Hall of Honor renovations in December said workers were doing construction on walls, air conditioning, and erecting metal studs.

He said he believes workers were exposed to asbestos.

“They put people’s lives in jeopardy,” said the worker, who spoke on a condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation. “It is something that, you know, I believe that is going on in other departments. And the fact that they are not saying anything until someone comes forward or there is a concern, I just think it is an unhealthy practice.”

Prior to announcing the executive review, the Parks and Recreation declined multiple requests for an on-camera interview. The department has not acknowledged to KXAN that any city employees may have been exposed to asbestos.

In a written statement, the Parks Department said work was not stopped at the Hall of Honor until Jan. 25, when a contractor cut a hole in a wall without approval.

Austin Water

This summer, nearly two dozen Austin Water employees were directed to begin clearing out a building at 3616 S. 1st St.

According to city records, the building was already contaminated with asbestos. A contractor had already come through, tested for asbestos, and left contaminated dust inside, according to workers and city documents.

In addition, the building was constructed with asbestos materials in the floors, walls and windows, according to an inspection survey.

On May 17, 2017, an Austin Water project coordinator submitted a request to work in the building and prepare it for asbestos abatement. He indicated the work could disturb “ceiling tiles, sheet rock, duct work, floor.”

On May 30, Mullin’s office denied the request and said, “All walls, floors and window glazing are positive” for asbestos.

Austin Water's South Service Center Bldg. 600. According to city records, the building was contaminated with asbestos before utility workers entered and labored for more than a month.

But within days Austin Water employees began working in the building, according to city records. One employee said he was working in the structure daily “non-stop” throughout June to prepare for renovations.

In July, workers pulled down ceilings and insulation, used “tapcon fasteners in hollow block walls,” removed an air conditioning unit, shoveled insulation and material off the floor, and dragged heavy equipment across the floor that chipped tile, among other tasks, according to injury forms.

“I wouldn’t have been in there if I had known it was infested with asbestos, or maybe I would have taken precautions!” another employee wrote in an injury form.

Austin Water did not respond to repeated requests for an interview. After KXAN emailed questions to the utility, the city manager’s office initiated the “executive review” and said no further questions would be answered.

Mullin said the asbestos contamination cases found by KXAN are not the norm, and the city has a “premier” program in the state.

“It’s not in the curve. It’s an outlier,” Mullin said of the exposures. “It’s not consistent with what happens in the city on a regular basis.”

Mullin also said, generally, it could not be determined to what extent people have been exposed to asbestos in these types of situations.

“We only know if a material has been disturbed and someone’s been in the immediate vicinity,” he said. “We don’t do air monitoring during their occupation of the area after the disturbance, so we cannot characterize or quantify any type of exposure to employees that have visited or been in the vicinity of a disturbed material.”

In incidents at AFD and Aviation, KXAN could find no record that workers submitted the required work requests before renovations began.

Fire Department

The AFD asbestos contamination occurred at an east Austin training facility at 517 S. Pleasant Valley Rd. in June of 2016.

City spokesman Green said the carpet removals were “unauthorized.” KXAN requested any work requests related to the incident, but the city could not provide one.

The “inadvertent asbestos disturbance” occurred on the second floor of the 14,836 square foot facility near the workers compensation office, according to a report created by a contractor that cleaned the building afterward.

More than 30 people were working in the AFD facility at the time. It is not clear how many people were exposed to asbestos. The city said the asbestos disturbance happened in June of 2016, but abatement was not performed until July 25, according to city emails and the report.

AFD training facility floor at the start of asbestos abatement.

Aviation Department

The largest asbestos exposure found by KXAN happened at the Aviation Maintenance Complex, which is an Austin Bergstrom International Airport office building separate from the passenger terminals.

City maintenance workers were directed to rip out office carpets during February and June 2016 renovations, but management did not submit an asbestos work request, according to record requests submitted by KXAN.

Airport management used an asbestos survey performed 12 years earlier to determine on its own that the work was safe, according to the city.

“Before the work began, Department of Aviation managers reviewed a 2004 building survey to ensure the work areas were clear of asbestos,” the city said in a written statement. “Once the work began, two employees expressed concerns about possible asbestos contamination in the work areas. Aviation officials again consulted the survey and allowed the work to proceed.”

Under Texas asbestos law, no person without the proper license can make a determination on where there may or may not be asbestos and what construction will or will not disturb asbestos in a public building.

Two airport employees also told KXAN that they alerted management during the renovations that black mastic, an industrial glue used under floor tiles, was exposed and that it could contain asbestos.

Aviation Department spokesman Jim Halbrook twice denied that any workers had come forward with concerns during the renovations, but the city reversed itself after KXAN obtained an internal email from a worker to management explicitly detailing the possible asbestos in an email sent in February of 2016 and asking for work to stop to allow testing and abatement.

The unauthorized work continued, and up to 150 people -- including administrators, carpenters and police officers -- were potentially exposed.

Following the ABIA incident, the city said it would offer medical surveillance for life and annual checkups for eight employees that worked inside one of the contaminated rooms. Both the airport spokesman, Jim Halbrook, and the airport’s Chief Operating Officer, Patti Edwards, said those employees would receive the surveillance.

“Each one of those employees is covered by our third party insurer and will receive testing as long as they go back for their annual testing, for the rest of their life,” Edwards said at an Austin Airport Advisory Commission meeting on July 11.

However, in a city flier created on Oct. 5, the city says it will not institute a medical surveillance program because the airport workers were not exposed to airborne asbestos concentrations at or above the Occupation Safety and Health Administration’s permissible exposure limit of .1 fiber per cubic centimeter of air in an eight-hour time-weighted average.

It is not clear how the city could know the concentration of asbestos in the room during the renovations, since airborne asbestos fiber testing was not done in the Maintenance Complex until six months after the first potential exposure and two months after the second, according to records obtained by KXAN.

Mullin also said the city does not conduct air monitoring at the spot of asbestos contamination while it is occurring.

Following KXAN’s initial investigation of the ABIA asbestos incident, aviation officials said they would hire a new position to help oversee environmental issues, and they would survey every airport building.

Outside of Aviation, the city has not confirmed to KXAN specifically how many employees were potentially exposed to asbestos during the incidents at AFD, Parks and Recreation or Austin Water.

Each employee that KXAN spoke with said they felt the city was not forthright about the asbestos exposures and they were not notified in a timely manner about the incidents.

“Austin Water has been very quick to deflect fault and minimized the situation,” said one utility worker in an injury affidavit. “All I want is to be taken care of if something does happen to me now or in the future, and the person/persons/company responsible is held accountable.”

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