In Baltimore, Maryland, a demolition firm and the corporate owner of a property where asbestos was being removed have both been fined, the demolition firm with a record $1,225,000 fine, the corporate building owner for $115,000.
The demolition firm in question is Erie Vera LLC, of 230 N. Chester Street in Baltimore. The building owner, a limited liability corporation headed by Ali Farooq, was working at 2315 St. Paul Street, which is also the name of the firm (2315 St. Paul Street LLC).
The fine against the building owner was a civil penalty; the fine against the contractor represents the largest asbestos violation penalty fine down to date in a Baltimore court. That verdict, delivered in Baltimore City Circuit Court after a two-day trial, was based on the determination that the defendants’ actions were “willful negligence”; an assumption reinforced by Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, who said they showed complete disregard for the health of workers and the surrounding environment.
The case began when a Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) inspector, acting on an anonymous tip, went to the 2315 St. Paul Street location in September of 2007 and discovered improperly removed asbestos, some of which had been shoveled down a trash chute inside the building to a waiting dumpster outside the building five floors below.
None of the approximately 20 workers were wearing respirators or protective clothing, according to the inspector. Nor were there any signs of engineering controls like negative air pressure devices, air handling and venting machinery, or air quality monitoring. In addition, no wetting of the debris to keep down asbestos fibers occurred.
The building owner reportedly did not know that the contractor was removing asbestos, since the building had already had an extensive asbestos remediation procedure performed in the early 1990s, according to the building owner’s attorney, Anthony Gorski.
The discovery prompted the MDE to halt work on the location, a six-story building being converted to apartment units. Workers were evacuated, and a licensed asbestos removal contractor called in to decontaminate the building and remove about 7,500 bags of asbestos-containing debris, including 1,500 feet of pipe insulation covered with friable (broken or damaged) asbestos.
Asbestos, widely used in a variety of construction materials prior to 1989, largely because of its remarkable insulative and chemical resistance properties, was banned that year by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, because of a large and growing association with pleural mesothelioma, a unique cancer of mesothelial tissues surrounding and protecting the lungs.
The ban, which limited asbestos content in domestic product to one percent or less (by weight or volume), was later attacked by the powerful and wealthy asbestos lobby, and asbestos can still be found in some American-made products (and many imported products) in amounts exceeding one percent. In fact, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, or USGS, asbestos imports rose between 2007 and 2008, to 1,880 tons, an increase of almost nine percent.
For Erie Vera workers, the future looms dark. Some may contract mesothelioma, which tends to lie dormant for up to five decades before producing tumors which, once diagnosed, kill patients within a year. According to publicly available reports, the disease already claims about 2,500 individuals a year.
Sources: Baltimore Sun, Hoovers, Enviroblog