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Raid Seizes Records of Asbestos Site in Atwater

Times Staff Writer

Armed with search warrants, criminal investigators seized records this week from a large real estate developer and two other firms connected with an Atwater site where hazardous asbestos was improperly ripped out late last year and exposed to the elements.

In court papers filed Thursday that disclosed the search, an investigator for the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office said it appeared that Schurgin Development Corp., owner of the old Franciscan Ceramics factory site, and other companies violated rules meant to keep cancer-causing asbestos from becoming airborne during demolition and disposal operations.

Brick in Barstow

The court papers also disclosed that the investigation has spread to Barstow, where one of the companies hauled truckloads of salvaged kiln bricks that allegedly were mixed with asbestos debris.

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Patrick S. Byrne, a senior investigator with the district attorney’s office, would not say when or if charges will be filed. He said he hoped that in April “the investigation would be concluded one way or the other.”

Schurgin lawyer Burt Pines, a former Los Angeles city attorney, said he had not seen the court papers and so could not comment on specifics.

But Pines said Schurgin “has not committed any criminal offenses. . . . One must realize that the district attorney doesn’t have our client’s side of the story, and that all that is occurring now is an investigation.”

Pines also said he was disappointed by the surprise search of Schurgin’s offices Tuesday.

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Wanted to Meet

“For the last three months, our office has been wanting to meet with the district attorney to answer questions, to provide documents and to clear up any concerns that might exist,” Pines said. “We were awaiting notification of such a meeting when, out of the blue, this search occurred.”

The latest development may increase the finger-pointing among a confusing cast of characters involved in the work at the old ceramics factory site at 2901 Los Feliz Blvd.

The 45-acre property was acquired by Schurgin in November for development of a shopping center. Over the years, large amounts of asbestos building materials were used in the plant, including in wall panels, floor tiles and insulation for pipes, ovens and kilns. On Dec. 9, while at the site on a different matter, an inspector with the South Coast Air Quality Management District noticed asbestos exposed to the elements over a wide area of rubble piles and partly demolished buildings.

The next week, after confirming that the material was asbestos, state health officials notified about 1,000 nearby families and businesses to stay away from the site. Schurgin took steps to secure the site, using water and plastic sheeting to keep the asbestos out of the air.

But the air quality district issued violation notices to Schurgin, Schurgin’s demolition contractor, J.D. Edwards Co., and Schurgin’s asbestos consultant, M.R. Chasse Co. The district refered the citations to the district attorney for possible criminal prosecution.

Officials of J.D. Edwards, which was searched Tuesday, could not be reached for comment. Maurice R. Chasse, head of the Alhambra-based consulting firm also named in the search warrant, said he gave Schurgin proper advice about managing asbestos but had the bad luck to be on site when the air district inspector saw the mess. “They’ve got the wrong person,” Chasse said.

Precautions Mandated

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The federal Clean Air Act and air quality district rules require certain precautions when major asbestos-containing structures are demolished or renovated. The air district and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency must be notified in advance of the demolition work; the asbestos must be carefully wetted and removed before demolition to avoid asbestos dust, and asbestos waste must be kept wet, containerized and labeled.

None of this was done at the Franciscan site, according to the air district citations.

Ironically, Schurgin was going to great expense to deal with environmental problems on the site. In buying the property, Schurgin knowingly acquired a site that would require a costly cleanup of tons of lead and other toxic metal wastes from decades of ceramics manufacturing.

Schurgin had not ignored the asbestos. In February, 1988, it hired Chasse to search buildings for asbestos before removal. And in November, Schurgin brought Chasse back to supervise asbestos removal work by an asbestos abatement firm called Marcor.

The Marcor crews, clad in protective suits and respirators, carefully scraped and bagged asbestos. Simultaneously, unprotected laborers in short sleeve shirts and baseball caps were knocking down buildings and salvaging materials, sources said.

Buildings Demolished

Chasse noticed upon his return in November that “at least three of the buildings he previously inspected and in which he discovered asbestos had been completely demolished,” according to the affidavit of Byrne, the district attorney investigator. A Schurgin official informed Chasse that these structures “had been taken care of,” Byrne said Chasse told him.

Sources said building materials such as lumber and sheet metal were removed from the site for salvage, evidently contributing to the accumulation of asbestos debris.

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According to court papers and interviews, Pyro Engineering, a manufacturer of high-temperature insulation in Santa Fe Springs, contracted with Schurgin in November to haul off tons of fire bricks from dismantled kilns.

Schurgin allegedly had the kilns torn down. According to court papers, 60 to 70 truckloads of bricks were loaded by an Edwards company bulldozer and hauled to a grinding mill in Barstow, where the bricks were to be crushed for reuse by Pyro. The trucks were not covered to prevent dust release.

Contaminated Dirt

Investigators later found asbestos-contaminated dirt and debris mixed in the brick piles in Barstow, causing them to halt the grinding.

Mike Jay, Pyro assistant general manager, said the firm ordered its own lab tests of samples from the brick pile and found no asbestos. He said more samples will be taken.

“I’ve been in the business a long time,” Jay said. “It would very much surprise me” if the brick had contaminants in it.

If there is asbestos, its presence was “never . . . apparent to us,” Jay said. “Certainly nothing was ever said by the Schurgin people.”


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