Cityscape

LeDuff: Did Detroit Demolition Cut Corners on Asbestos-Risk Building? State Starts Inquiry


August 15, 2019, 4:50 PM by  Charlie LeDuff

Dear Johnny Lawman:

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I know you're really busy with federal grand juries concerning the Detroit demolition program. And I know I told you I wouldn't bother you unless there's something new and important you need to look into.

In that spirit, see this video, Johnny. I found it on the City of Detroit's Facebook page. It's not a house they're demolishing. It's a five-story apartment building in the middle of the city near Woodward and McNichols.

Notice the cloud of mist wafting over the neighborhood, Johnny. Kids live there. And there could be asbestos in that cloud.

The contractor, who is being paraded around by Mayor Mike Duggan as the model of minority contractor participation, made the film himself! I know. Wow. The city must like it, because somebody in the mayor's propaganda department shared it on the city's social media accounts.

Anyway, according to the city authorized survey report in July 2018the building was full of asbestos -- an estimated 150,000 square feet of it, in fact. That's approximately three football fields. The report noted that few structural issues prevented removal of the carcinogens before demolition.

Asbestos, as you probably know, causes lung cancer, Johnny. You've got to take care with that stuff, so people in the neighborhood don't get sick.

The curious thing here is that the contractor never took the asbestos out. He simply knocked the building down and trucked the debris away.

More curious, it doesn't appear he got official permission from the city to do it this way, and he never notified the state either, as required by law.

Unsafe to enter? Different rules 


Screen shot from demolition video.

The contractor – Gayango Co. -- won the job in March, and was going to be paid $506,523 to first have the asbestos removed by a subcontractor, and then demolish the remainder of the 32,000-square-foot building and dispose of it at a landfill. The contractor had four months to accomplish all of this.

But according to the opening scene of the video, the city approached the contractor in April and asked for the project to go faster. It goes on to say the city wanted the job done in 30 days, since the building apparently presented a risk to the neighborhood and the “fully occupied” apartment building next door. 

It is important to say, Johnny, that the job was funded with federal money from the Department of Housing and Urban Development – specifically, Community Development Block Grant funds in danger of lapsing, according to city officials.

Around the time of the supposed conversation with the city, the contractor commissioned his own study by an environmental services company, which showed the building was unsafe to enter. Under the law, asbestos does not have to be removed in portions of buildings that are deemed unsafe. 

The issue, Johnny, is that there appears to be no official authorization to allow this. Nobody from the city appears to have signed such an order.

Fast-track job

“The director from BSEED gave permission,” said Becky Camargo, the lawyer for Gayanga Co. She added that it was a verbally authorized "ordered demo," which means there was a sense of urgency.  

Sources in the Buildings, Safety Engineering and Environmental Department (BSEED), which carries that responsibility, say no such order exists.

Furthermore, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality was not notified about the change in plans either, as is required by law. In fact, the revised paperwork filed with the state by the Gayanga says the asbestos would be removed. It was not. 

“My client wasn't aware he had to correct the paperwork,” Camargo said.

What's more curious it appears the subcontractor, BBEK of Warren, was unaware that the building had been demolished and hauled away in April, and filed in July, months later, for an extension with the state to remove the asbestos. Something is fishy, don't you think? 

You know what else is fishy? BBEK was indefinitely suspended by the city three weeks ago over questions about its air quality monitoring. But you already know that.

Abrupt click and dial tone

Despite all this, a change order to the contract was approved by the city on Aug. 1 of this year, several months after the demoliton. The contract called for an additional $29,297, bringing the total to $535,820 -- even though no asbestos was removed. When I called the program analyst who signed the change order, he hung up on me.

Interestingly, the change order was approved through a "recess order," meaning it bypassed a council vote because council was on vacation.  Another sweet move. The city says the added costs came as a result of such things as using more workers to expedite the demolition.  

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Detroit demolition program file photo.

As a side note, I should also point out Johnny, that the State of Michigan and the City of Detroit quietly entered into a consent agreement last December after contractors were caught mishandling asbestos in 2016-17 under Mayor Duggan's scandal-plagued demolition program.

The consent agreement requires asbestos-laden materials to be watered down, the trucks hauling that debris to be lined with plastic wrappers are to be sealed, and the trucks to be labeled hazardous and sealed on top with a tarp. Take a look at the video, Johnny. You tell me. It's hard to tell if they were in compliance with the consent agreement. 

The state tells me the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, has opened an investigation into this project and is interested in the contractor's copy of the work order, electronic communications and a dumping manifest. 

Zipped lips and no council review

As is the case with reporters at the Detroit Free Press, I asked numerous city officials for on-the-record interviews, Johnny, in order to ask detailed questions about this project. Those requests went unfulfilled as has been the case for years now. I think they're worried.

Here is a mealy mouthed statement from Tyrone Clifton, the director of the Detroit Building Authority, confirming the city's desire to spend money:

31 Woodland was not contracted as an emergency demolition, although it was performed in a similar manner as one. As is done every year, City HRD staff and DBA commercial demo staff meet with several contractors of procured CDBG-funded demolitions to evaluate which ones can be accomplished by the annual May 1 HUD spending deadline. Approximately 4-5 individual contractors were represented at this meeting which took place on March 31.  At this meeting, Woodland was identified as a candidate.

Prior to beginning work, contracted demolition workers expressed concerns about the condition of the building and whether it was safe for workers to enter. The City cannot order or compel a demolition contractor to enter a structure that the contractor believes is unsafe.  In instances such as this, the contractor is compelled to document the unsafe conditions to the best of its ability and to make that documentation available to the City.  A structural engineer evaluated the building and determined it to be unsafe to enter.

In these circumstances, additional safety measures are used, similar to an emergency demolition, such as wet-wet, active air monitoring, employees in hazmat suits, and the debris was taken to a landfill approved for regulated materials.

There is no signed authorization required from the city to proceed with a demolition without abatement when an engineering study determines the building is unsafe for workers to enter.

The change in the contracted amount was approved on August 1 through the standard City Council recess approval process.

As for that “fully occupied” apartment building next door? It caught on fire a year and a half ago, and it appears as if almost nobody lives in it. Knocks to the lobby door went unanswered.

The only occupant I could find in the building was Rasta Hakeem, who occupies a first floor store front. “Nobody didn't tell me it was full of asbestos,” said Hakeem. “I'm sitting around here in a cloud of asbestos dust, and nobody said nothing. The city don't care about us poor black people or our black babies. They wouldn't do that south of Grand Boulevard.”

I just thought you'd be interested Johnny since you already have a task force and grand jury impaneled.

That's it from Motown. Let me know when you've got some news to share.

And remember, Johnny. We believe in you.

Yours very truly,
Charlie



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