The Public Eye

The Public Eye: Possible asbestos exposure of Sacramento County workers alleged

Published: Sunday, Apr. 21, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Sunday, Apr. 21, 2013 - 7:14 am

A Sacramento County safety inspector alleges county workers may have suffered asbestos exposure last year after managers did not take proper steps when cleaning up fallen ceiling material.

A water leak Aug. 20 caused material to fall from a third-floor ceiling containing asbestos at Sacramento County's old administrative building downtown. About 230 employees work in the Seventh Street structure, which also receives public traffic at service counters.

County employees disagree about whether anyone might have been exposed to asbestos after the accident.

Exposure to asbestos can significantly increase the risk of respiratory diseases, including cancer. Risk depends on the length and intensity of the exposure, but short-term encounters have caused serious illness.

County managers who oversaw the response maintain that asbestos never became airborne and hazardous. In an Aug. 30 letter to the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health, county safety specialist Michael Landy said the county's response was "immediate and effective." Cal-OSHA closed the complaint without any findings against the county.

But Jeff Rommel, a county senior safety specialist for six years, calls the county's response a "cover-up." Rommel filed a complaint about the incident with Cal-OSHA on April 12 and included letters from three county officials questioning how the accident cleanup was conducted. He provided The Bee with a copy of his complaint.

"The people in the building don't even know they might have been exposed," Rommel told The Bee.

The other county personnel who signed statements in the complaint are David Fletcher, an asbestos worker; John Lemieux, a recently retired stationary engineer; and Karen Carney, an environmental specialist.

Along with Rommel, the three employees said custodial workers removed asbestos without wearing respiratory protection, as required by law.

County employees had fans blowing on the asbestos-containing material and left central air running in the building, increasing the risk for exposure by spreading the material around, Rommel and others said in written statements.

The managers responsible for the accident response were Jeff Gasaway, who runs the county's facility and property services, and Larry Vice, who heads two sections in the division.

Gasaway and Vice said the asbestos was not hazardous because it was wet, and thus it did not become airborne and breathable. They said the fans did not blow on any asbestos because the material on the floor did not contain any.

Fletcher told The Bee that he identified material containing asbestos on the floor.

In his written statement, Fletcher said he took samples from the damaged area and brought them to a lab for a rush analysis. Most of the samples tested positive for asbestos, according to a copy of the lab's report.

"When I was notified by the lab of the positive results, I called John (Lemieux) and asked him to shut down the air handlers and tape off the area to keep the occupants out of the damaged area," Fletcher wrote.

According to statements from Lemieux and Fletcher, Vice did not comply with the request because the material was wet. Vice confirmed that account with The Bee.

In his written statement, Lemieux said it was well known that the building contained asbestos, and anyone in the building was at risk of exposure.

"In my opinion, this hazardous situation was directly caused by Larry Vice choosing not to follow protocol," he said in his statement.

Gasaway said Vice consulted with him during the cleanup and he agreed with the decisions. Gasaway said tests were conducted on material that was intact in the ceiling, not what had fallen to the floor.

County spokeswoman Chris Andis said officials already knew there was no asbestos in the fallen material because only tiles without asbestos fell to the ground. She said they needed to test the intact material in the ceiling in preparation for planned repairs.

Air tests were conducted in the building about eight hours after the ceiling collapsed, according to Gasaway and others. The tests found no indication of airborne asbestos, records show. Lemieux and Rommel say that's only because the fans were running all day, clearing out any toxic material.

Cal-OSHA will be left to resolve the discrepancies in the various accounts of the incident.

The agency's initial investigation appears to have been the result of an informal complaint, spokeswoman Erika Monterroza said. Informal complaints are usually resolved by a letter to the employer asking for an explanation, which is what happened in this case.

The county's response consisted of a summary by safety specialist Landy, the negative air test results and some short emails about materials used in the cleanup, records show.

Rommel's complaint to Cal-OSHA is being handled differently. A report from a known employee is considered a formal complaint and investigated through an on-site visit by Cal-OSHA, according to the agency. A Cal-OSHA official interviewed county officials about the incident this past week, Andis said.

Call The Bee's Brad Branan, (916) 321-1065. Follow him on Twitter @bradb_at_sacbee.

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