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City Authorities Admit Asbestos Peril at Plant; Level Labeled Minimal

Times Staff Writer

San Diego officials confirmed Thursday that asbestos has contaminated the Point Loma Sewage Treatment Plant, but they said air samplings taken recently at the plant show the exposure level is minimal.

D. Cruz Gonzalez, director of the city’s risk-management office, said the tests indicated “low levels” of contamination.

“We’re not saying that asbestos is not present in the work area, but we’re saying that it is within the accepted state and federal standards,” Gonzalez said.

However, he and several other city officials acknowledged that the tests were done beginning in June, 1988, about six months after workers had unknowingly worked in “dust clouds” containing asbestos fibers. The fibers were found in ceiling tiles removed by a construction company hired to remodel the plant’s office area and central control room.

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No Protection Worn

Plant workers told The Times that they had worked in the dust-covered area without wearing protective clothing or respirators and were exposed daily to the swirling dust for up to six weeks in November and December, 1987. Asbestos-contaminated dust covered their desks and got into their coffee, the workers said.

The six-month gap between when the workers say they were exposed and when city officials say they first heard about the asbestos problem and then halted the work remained unexplained Thursday.

“I don’t know what occurred back in November,” Gonzalez said. “The problem was brought to our attention in June, and that’s when we took our first air samplings. We found the level of exposure to be within state and federal standards.”

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Gonzalez and other city officials also acknowledged that the samplings were done after the remodeling work was halted and 90% of the ceiling had been removed.

The asbestos contamination at the plant might have continued unnoticed if an operator had not asked the contractor and city officials to check for the deadly fiber after most of the ceiling had been removed, another city official confirmed Thursday.

“They were tearing out the ceiling, but at that time nobody made us aware that there was asbestos in it. An operator raised the issue in June, 1988, when he asked ‘Is there asbestos in it?’ We checked and there was. At that time, the job was shut down,” said Don Pyke, deputy director of the city’s Metropolitan Wastewater Division.

Ceiling Is the Key

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Pyke said the overall work was stopped in June, 1988, but plant workers said removal of the ceiling had begun in November or December, 1987, and continued for four to six weeks. Pyke and other city officials said they could not confirm when the contractor began to tear down the ceiling. Officials at Engicon Corp. in Sorrento Valley, the company hired to do the remodeling, refused to comment for the second day.

Pyke also said he could not dispute employees’ charges that they were exposed to flying asbestos for up to six weeks before the contamination was discovered. Workers were not wearing protective clothing or respirators during this period of exposure to the deadly fiber.

“I was not out there, but I’m sure that they walked in areas where the ceiling was torn down,” Pyke said. “I’m sure there was dust and they were walking through the area.”

He and other city officials said the asbestos level was not measured until after the remodeling work at the plant was halted on June 27, 1988.

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Pyke said that “not all of the dust they were exposed to was pure asbestos.” However, he compared that to a person who walks through a room where cigarettes are being smoked and is exposed to secondhand smoke.

Big Question Remains

A key unanswered question is why the contractor and the city did not check the ceiling for asbestos contamination. Laws prohibiting the use of asbestos in public buildings took effect in 1978, and the Point Loma treatment plant was built in 1962, at a time when asbestos was commonly used in public buildings as a fire retardant, most often in ceilings.

Despite increased knowledge of the dangers of asbestos and its use in many buildings, the city did not appoint its first asbestos expert until June, 1988, when it hired Alan J. Johanns. Johanns warned officials of the continuing problem at the plant in a Dec. 30, 1988, memo in which he told them that part of the ceiling was still contaminated with tiles containing asbestos.

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Larry King, deputy director of the city’s building division, said it took a city crew about six weeks to clean up the contamination. The city has a team of employees who are certified to do asbestos cleaning but not removal.

“When we went out there, we took bulk and air samples, and they were below the danger level,” King said. “We advised the risk-management office that there was a need to clean the area, seal it and get the asbestos removed.”

The only part of the building where the asbestos ceiling was not removed is over the central control room, where workers monitor the giant sewage and sludge pumps that service the city. The room is manned around the clock, and that presented a problem to the cleanup crew.

Sheets Corraled Asbestos

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King said this was overcome by having the crew clean the control room for 50 minutes and allowing operators inside for 10 minutes to monitor the pumps. The cleanup crew contained the asbestos inside the control room by draping plastic sheeting under the ceiling and taping it the walls to trap asbestos particles falling from the ceiling tiles. Duct tape has also been put on cracks on the control panel and around the dozens of gauges and control knobs.

According to King and Pyke, city officials are negotiating a change order with Engicon to finish the asbestos removal. The process has become complicated because the company is not certified to remove asbestos and will have to subcontract the job to a qualified firm.

“We are in the process of finalizing an agreement with the contractor,” Pyke said. “I would hope that, within the next couple of days, we will reach an agreement.”

King estimated that the removal will take three to four weeks. He said the removal crew will probably follow the same schedule as the city’s cleanup crew--working 50 minutes and allowing operators inside for 10.

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