LeDuff: It Matters That Detroit Broke Federal Law When it Razed an Asbestos-Laden Building

September 07, 2019, 6:16 AM by  Charlie LeDuff

Demolition video screen shot.

It's time someone took demolition authority away from Detroit City Hall.

Here's the latest: The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) issued violations late last week to both the city's Land Bank and its Building Authority and a contractor for violating federal law.

The state, which enforces federal hazardous air contamination laws, found the city failed to file proper papers before the Detroit contractor demolished an abandoned apartment building at 31 Woodland St. this year without removing the equivalent of three football fields of dangerous asbestos. The city of Detroit  owned the North End property. 

The city tries to play down the violations. But the truth is, as Hugh C. McDiarmid Jr. of the state environmental agency notes, the failure to file proper papers “decreases transparency for what’s going on at a certain site” for the state agency, the public and any other interested parties. And when it involves dangerous asbestos, that's a big deal. The state has sent "violation notice" letters to the city and contractor ordering them to respond in writing by Sept. 19.

What makes the violations an even bigger deal is that the contractor demolished the building without removing the asbestos, and hauled away the debris. As I reported last month, under the law, asbestos does not have to be removed during demolitions in portions of buildings that are deemed unsafe. 

'Notice . . . was not updated'

But that exception makes it all the more important to follow proper procedures when it involves asbestos. 

The contractor – Gayanga Co. -- was paid more than a half-million dollars and insists the city gave him permission to knock the building down without removing the cancer-causing material because the structural condition of the building made removal unsafe.

But the state, in issuing the violatons, found  "the Notice of Intent to Demolish was not updated to show that regulated-asbestos containing material would remain in place during the demoltion." 

Another Gayanga tear-down in Detroit last spring. (Photo: Facebook)

A technicality? Not if it puts your health at risk.

The issues came to light after the city posted a video of the demolition job on its Facebook page, paid for by the business in an effort to get a larger slice of minority-preferred contracts.

Risks to public

The state’s violation letters to the city and contractor reference the Facebook video, noting that it “showed several potential violations occurring, including visible emissions offsite and lack of signage on trucks taking the debris to a landfill. These violations were not included in this violation notice because they were not personally witnessed by the AQD (Air Quality Division) staff.”

Possible "emissions offsite" refers to potentially hazardous dust from trucks or from the site, the state explains. In addition, trucks hauling away asbestos must display signage noting the hazardous material.

Becky Camargo, the lawyer for Gayanga Co. told me last month that the city gave verbal authorization to the contractor because of a sense of urgency. But sources in the the Building, Safety Engineering and Environmental Department (BSEED), say no such order exists.

Furthermore, the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy was not notified about the change in plans, either, as is required by law. In fact, 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 responded.

Federal reviews

Signed authorizations are not required from the city to proceed with a demolition without abatement when an engineering study determines the building is unsafe for workers to enter, an official told me last month. Well, if the city followed all the mandated procedures, the state wouldn't have bothered filing violations of federal law.

The city’s problems may not end with the state.

“HUD is looking into the matter based on evidence presented to us by both Charlie LeDuff and the city to determine if any federal regulations or policies were violated,” Michael Polsinelli, Detroit field office director of Housing and Urban Development, said in a statement to Deadline Detroit.

The demolition was paid for with federal block grant development dollars from HUD. And the city has already had a portion of those funds frozen as HUD officials review payments made under the city's Motor City Match program to encourage the growth of small neighborhood businesses.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has also been alerted and waits for paperwork to climb up the bureaucratic ladder.

Add to that, the sprawling and long running federal corruption probe into the city's once ballyhooed demolition program that was funded with U.S. Treasury dollars and we've got the equivalent of a teen drunk-driving in daddy's car.

The media seems to believe that probe is finished. Take it from me, dear reader, it is not.

'Controls were in place'

On Friday, Tyrone Clifton, director of the Detroit Building Authority (DBA) issued a statement to Deadline Detroit about the demolition at 31 Woodland: 

The violation EGLE issued to the contractor concerns a notification issue and has nothing to do with how the demolition itself was conducted.  The contractor acknowledges it didn’t update the notification it already had on file when it was determined the building was unsafe to abate.  The contractor has since filed that notification.

The city has a right to demolish a property it owns. There are two circumstances under which the city can demolish a building without first abating it.  One is the typical emergency order. In instances where an emergency order is not present, the city can still demolish when public or worker safety is at risk.  That risk was demonstrated in this case by the engineering report.  

The drone video clearly shows proper environmental controls were in place, including water being sprayed to control dust, workers in protective gear and trucks properly lined and covered when leaving the site.

The DBA did issue a violation to the contractor as standard practice, which the contractor has appealed.

It should also be noted that the city entered in December into a court-sanctioned judgment order to handle asbestos properly, after it was discovered that the program in the past has not been taking care of the public's health.

Just last month, the largest asbestos abatement contractor was suspended from doing business with the city after it was discovered he had financial ties to the company who was supposed to monitor his work.

The news could not have come at a worse time for Mayor Mike Duggan, who is supposed to make his pitch to the city council and the poorest urban dwellers in America for a $200 million bond to raise more money for demolition after squandering $250 million dollars in federal money.

Residents near the site of the asbestos bomb at Woodward and Woodland – a place of low money and rooms let by the hour – are not impressed.

“The government? Man, they're crooked,” said Greg Charleston, 42, who lives in a red brick Colonial just south of the site. “This whole block was covered in that shit. Just goes to show downtown don't care nothing about us. And you wonder why people are so angry, why nobody's got trust.”

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