BEND, Ore. - The owner of a Bend asbestos removal firm said Monday he'll fight a $4,500 fine by the state Department of Environmental Quality alleging improper work on a project at Redmond High School earlier this year. He disputed the allegations and threatened a lawsuit over any loss of business.
In the DEQ's news release Monday announcing the penalty against Alpine Abatement Associates, the agency said, "This is considered a work practices violation, as there was no direct threat to human or environmental health."
The agency claims the company failed to adequately wet ceiling insulation containing asbestos during an asbestos removal project on Feb. 13 at the high school.
When asbestos is not adequately wetted during removal, there is a high potential for the asbestos fibers to become airborne in the containment area, the agency said. Because the abatement was conducted in a fully enclosed and contained area, DEQ said, no students or faculty were exposed to asbestos fibers.
Asbestos fibers are a respiratory hazard that causes lung cancer, mesothelioma and asbestosis. "However, there was little threat to human health in this case because the project area was sealed off in an isolated containment area," the DEQ said.
Company owner Jack Billings said he's been in the business for 25 years and this is only the second DEQ violation, and he's had none from OSHA.
"They are so wrong on this one," he said. "I talked to an attorney, and he said we'd spend three times that much fighting it. But it's the principle of the thing – I know it's wrong, they know it's wrong."
"There's not even any ceiling insulation in Redmond High School" that was part of the job, Billings said Instead, he said, they were removing fireproofing that contained asbestos and was over-applied decades ago.
"Fireproofing – it's kind of a gray area, kind of an impossible situation to do," Billings said. "So we designed a very extreme ‘negative pressure' enclosure, because we were working on it while the kids were in school."
He claimed that because this was a "prevailing wage job, so $40 an hour," one of the workers – they don't have a permanent crew, but hire out of a pool – called in the DEQ. And he said that was because there were "a couple guys trying to figure out how to make the job last longer." But once a complaint is made, Billings said, "DEQ has to respond, like OSHA."
"They came down there and looked, and they formed an opinion, which was completely out of line," Billings said. "We did not remove anything that wasn't wet. We could only wet where we could take fireproofing off the underside of the roof, the hanger locations for the seismic upgrade."
"If you get the whole thing wet, it falls off – falls to the floor," which releases more material, he explained. So instead, "we were using handheld sprayers, spray in the spot that we were removing."
"They (DEQ) don't have any proof" of the allegations, Billings said. "They saw some material on the floor that appeared to be dry, some bags that appeared to not have enough water. But they were all still in the containment area. You wet the bags as you take them out."
"We pride ourselves in doing it right," Billings said. "I have had one time-off accident in 25 years. This was a ‘time and materials' contract – we were not cutting any corners – doing it by the book, but doing it as fast as I could."
Frank Messina, an air quality specialist in the Bend DEQ office, conducted the inspection and still maintained Monday that the material was not adequately wetted down to prevent fibers from spreading, though none were detected in air samples.
Messina said they have not set an informal hearing yet, and that Billings will have the right to go before an administrative law judge, should he so choose.