The vision that developers had to renovate a dilapidated housing complex and transform it into a modern apartment complex catering to the millennials of St. Petersburg was lauded by community members, who praised the revitalization.
But what the developer reportedly failed to disclose was that getting the job done on time and for the estimated price meant putting workers and the community at risk of potentially deadly exposure to asbestos.
Now, the developer and a supervisor are facing criminal charges that allege
the pair hired workers who were untrained at asbestos removal to rid the
structure of the deadly, fibrous material, which was found on countless
surfaces throughout the site. These workers, with no knowledge or experience
of how to remove asbestos, were given no protective gear. As they removed
several thousand square feet of it, they were not told of the dangers.
The extent of the violations of law are only just now being revealed in the recently released indictments. It’s a major concern because exposure to asbestos is known to cause serious diseases, like asbestosis and mesothelioma.
In one instance, a bathroom ceiling collapsed, prompting the site supervisor to direct employees to vacuum up the debris, loaded with asbestos, and dump it in with the rest of the regular construction material waste. This is in direct violation of federal laws on asbestos disposal.
In another case, workers who were taking out appliances that were contaminated with asbestos were told to take them outside and wash them out with hoses. Not only did this put the workers at risk, it caused the contaminated material to soak into the ground.
Workers who tried to follow the advice of an asbestos consultant in removing contaminated materials were threatened with wage theft by the site supervisor. And even after inspectors with the county air quality division warned the team that it was required to properly wet, seal, and label asbestos debris, those warnings were not heeded.
Additionally, the developer and the site supervisor are accused of lying to inspectors about the extent to which asbestos existed in the structure, prosecutors allege. And when asbestos removal work was being done, the developer refused to notify the county of it, as required by law.
The pair, ages 50 and 36, have been charged with federal conspiracy to defraud and violating federal procedures. They have each pleaded not guilty. Each one of the seven counts listed in the indictment carries a maximum prison sentence of five years and a fine of $250,000.
It’s not unsurprising that a demolition or renovation crew would find asbestos in an older structure. The material was routinely used in everything from ceiling tiles to insulation. It’s heat-resistant property made it ideal for numerous uses. The problem is the material is also deadly, particularly when the dust is kicked up and the fibers go airborne. That’s why there are such stringent requirements for removal and disposal.
But doing it the right way is expensive. Consider that such a job even for a mid-sized residential property would cost thousands and thousands of dollars.
But this does not give developers and construction companies the right to break the law. These kinds of costs have to be built into contingency funds. The risk is anticipated, especially when working with an older structure.
This property in question was initially built in the 1970s as a home for the elderly and disabled. The housing authority sold the property to the developer for nearly $7 million. The idea was to create an apartment complex that would cater to students and young professionals.
Roughly 120,000 feet of asbestos were illegally extracted from the property before county environmental officials received word of the project. When they did receive a complaint, the developer was ordered to begin a proper asbestos abatement. This took a full six months, and on top of that, the company had to pay a $175,000 fine.
But prosecutors don’t want this sort of thing becoming simply a cost of doing business, especially given the serious health risks to which workers were exposed. That’s why they are continuing to pursue criminal charges, even after fines and other expenses were imposed.
Help for mesothelioma victims can be found at The Ferraro Law Firm by calling (888) 554-2030. Offices in Miami and Washington, D.C.
Two indicted for improper asbestos removal at St. Petersburg’s Urban Style Flats, April 29, 2015, By Susan Taylor Martin, Tampa Bay Times
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