Kimberly Koehler dropped everything when a neighbor called her to report a plume of dust after a construction crew demolished a house in their Portland, Oregon, subdivision.
Koehler, an Eastmoreland Neighborhood Association board member, immediately went to the site and confronted one of the workers. She demanded proof the house was asbestos-free.
When he failed to produce any documentation, she immediately contacted the state agency that oversees worker safety.
Within two hours, investigators isolated the site and began sampling for asbestos contamination that later tested positive. The demo crew consisted of four men, all without respirators. The state levied heavy fines on the construction company as well as the
homebuilder who contracted the demolition.
The incident represents a lack of oversight, enforcement and safety precautions among state and local officials when it comes to properly razing Portland homes contaminated with deadly asbestos.
Asbestos Prevalent in Old Homes
Before the 1970s, building materials, such as floor tiles, ceiling materials, cement shingles and pipe insulation, often contained asbestos fibers.
Industry experts say 80 to 90 percent of old homes facing demolition probably contain the carcinogen.
When inhaled, asbestos can lead to mesothelioma, a deadly cancer that can take 10 to 40 years to arise after exposure. People diagnosed with the cancer live an average of only one year after diagnosis.
A state workplace safety official said the men working at the Portland site Koehler visited were most likely exposed to the killer fiber because they lacked protective gear.
Demolition of Homes Contaminated with Asbestos Below the Radar
Unfortunately, catching illegal activity involving asbestos is random and rare in Portland. According to a report in The Oregonian, state officials lack oversight.
The Department of Environmental Quality
(DEQ) is responsible for protecting the public from asbestos. In 2002, the agency enacted a rule requiring every building to be inspected for asbestos prior to demolition.
But before the rule change, the DEQ failed to consult construction industry associations. The associations objected to the new safety measure, claiming there wouldn’t be enough licensed inspectors to meet demand, and it would cause homeowners to remove asbestos on their own without taking proper precautions.
The DEQ reversed the rule about four months after passing it, explaining the agency needed to “provide immediate relief” for businesses.
“It’s appalling. Most people think of DEQ as a green organization,” Koehler said. “But as a matter of fact, they’re not looking out for our interests.”
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In a written statement , the DEQ said:
“Oregon’s asbestos regulations require that building owners be responsible for knowing whether their buildings contain asbestos materials and for proper management of asbestos containing materials.”
The agency also said it works mostly on referrals and complaints rather than more proactive measures.
DEQ director Dick Pedersen declined an interview, but the agency’s written statement addressed a question about whether environmental regulators are doing enough to protect the public from asbestos released during home demolitions.
Public health is protected when asbestos removal and disposal are done properly and in accordance with DEQ requirements. When people violate these rules it can lead to increased risk of exposure for workers and the general public. DEQ works to ensure compliance with our regulations through complaint
response, inspections and by licensing abatement contractors, the DEQ said.
Contractors demolished an estimated 200 homes containing asbestos in 2012 and 2013, records show. However, DEQ officials issued no asbestos-related fines during that period.
An analysis of city and state data shows contractors reported removing asbestos in only 33 percent of Portland homes demolished from 2011 to 2014.
Records also show DEQ has kept the asbestos inspector position that oversees the Portland area vacant for the past three years.
New Legislation Lacks Teeth
Community action prompted new state legislation that becomes effective in 2016. The new law requires contractors or owners to examine homes for asbestos prior to demolition.
However, the law creates no protocol for the state to confirm whether the contractors follow through on performing the inspections or removing any asbestos they find.
Local government officials are trying to fill that gap. The city of Portland recently started requiring contractors to provide proof they’ve removed asbestos in homes they are planning to tear down, but city officials admit they have no enforcement authority.
Portland Residents Questioning Their Safety
Heather Dickinson is the neighbor who witnessed the dust plume and called Koehler.
Her 8- and 6-year-old boys stood outside, watching the crews bulldoze the house. When the dust billowed out of the wreckage, she ordered them inside.
The residue eventually blanketed the outside of her house.
“The only reason they got caught in this situation was because a neighbor made a phone call,” Dickinson said of the contractors. “One would like to think that we’re all okay. But you know, who knows?”