City of Austin overhauls asbestos policy after several incidents

A KXAN Investigation into the city's lack of oversight into potential asbestos exposures has the city changing its policy

Asbestos Municipal Court Wall
Asbestos Municipal Court Wall (City of Austin Photo)

AUSTIN (KXAN) – The city of Austin has reviewed its own asbestos program and found numerous failures and deficiencies that may have led to exposures at four separate departments in the past two years.

The city initiated the asbestos review after KXAN reported multiple asbestos disturbances that have potentially affected up to 200 city employees.

The review lists nine problems with the asbestos program, including lack of personnel to manage it, lack of asbestos procedure knowledge, lack of training, inadequate oversight of consultants that perform testing and abatement, a failure to review procedures and contact the asbestos team, and unauthorized renovations by city staff, among others.

Eric Stockton, with the Building Services Department, said the results of the review will strengthen the authority of the asbestos program and clarify workers’ responsibilities. The review, he said, is all part of the city’s effort to protect employees and stop exposures.

Stockton apologized to the workers that may have been exposed.

“I want them to know that we care and that, for me personally, I’m really sorry that that ever happened to them,” Stockton said. “If we can tighten up the procedures, then it won’t happen again.”

The city is now expanding its asbestos team, developing better procedures for dealing with contractors, posting signage to alert if a building may have asbestos, beginning a review of every building’s asbestos survey, and training or retraining employees on asbestos policy, according to the review.

KXAN’s investigations first found possible asbestos exposures at an airport office building. Later, we discovered asbestos incidents in the Parks and Recreation Department, Fire Department and Water Utility.

The city’s review notes two additional exposures not previously reported by KXAN.

In one case, a subsurface asbestos cement pipe at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport was disturbed during a November 2016 terminal improvement project. Only contractors were may have been exposed, according to the review.

In another case, a contractor removed a beehive from a wall that contained asbestos at Fire Station No. 24, which is located on Nuckols Crossing Road in southeast Austin. That January 2016 incident did not involve city workers, according to the review.

Carol Guthrie, with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), said workers involved in the asbestos incidents have not been satisfied with the city’s responses. Guthrie called the asbestos incidents “shameful” and said the city should have enforced better guidelines to prevent potential exposures years ago.

“The way the city has handled the asbestos in the other areas has not been very forthcoming,” Guthrie said.  “I think it’s safe for me to say that the majority of people who have been involved in these situations, in all these different departments that you have uncovered, do not have any trust.”

A String of Problems

At ABIA, maintenance workers voiced concerns to managers that during floor renovations in February and June of 2016 asbestos containing glue could be disturbed. Management told the employees to keep working and continue ripping out carpet. The renovations were not authorized by Building Services, and more than 120 employees in the building were potentially exposed to asbestos, according to city records and interviews. The maintenance building is not connected to passenger terminals.

“The city of Austin and Department of Aviation would never intentionally put its employees at risk,” the city said in a prepared statement in 2017.

A later KXAN investigation revealed potential exposures in three more departments. Last October, as KXAN requested city records and investigated those exposures, the city initiated the executive review and stopped answering questions about the asbestos exposures.

Asbestos is a generic name for several naturally occurring minerals that were commonly used until the 1980s in building materials such as insulation, floor adhesive, ceiling tiles and concrete. Asbestos can become airborne if it is broken apart. Prolonged exposure to airborne asbestos can cause cancer.

“With asbestos exposures it’s a matter of dosage and frequency. The higher the dosage and the higher the frequency, the higher the risk that there might be some medical problems in the future,” Stockton said. “Our program is designed to try and prevent any type of exposure, which is a really ambitious goal because the asbestos, unfortunately, it’s been used heavily in building materials throughout the decades.”

Perhaps the building with the most asbestos concerns is Austin’s downtown Municipal Court. About 600 people arrive per day at the building, according to the court administrator.

Last November, the city shut down the entire court over concerns of asbestos contamination. City workers had moved ceiling tiles and sent dust into a work area. On Nov. 29, city officials closed the building for asbestos testing, which came back negative. The city is considering options to move the entire municipal court to a new building.

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