April 21 2010 12:00 AM

With houses being demolished, how is the safety of neighbors from harmful substances such as asbestos to be ensured? The case of 806 N. Cedar St. is discouraging.



James Merrill explains, almost frantically, that he knows dust is a part of life: It accumulates if you are not diligent. But Merrill has been diligent. And yet the dust in his house on Monroe Street in Lansing keeps coming back.

He points to a layer of white fuzz covering a closed laptop sitting on a coffee table in his sparsely decorated living room, saying he cleaned it recently. Then, he shows off a black table in the corner; he has wiped it partially clean, but has left a corner of the table covered in the dust. He is preserving it to prove the dust problem, and to get it tested for contaminates.

Merrill says the dust problem started in March, after the house behind his, at 806 N. Cedar St., was demolished.

“It blew right through my house,” he says of debris from the demolition. “Everything was imposed with it.”

Merrill fears his house was contaminated with asbestos, cadmium and other frightful friable material that he believes was unleashed by the demolition. Merrill has preserved in four Ziploc sandwich bags pieces of the demolition, like a chunk of 806 N. Cedar and some coagulated dust.

And in this case, he apparently had good reason to be concerned: The contractor began demolition without conducting an asbestos assessment, a Lansing city official says.

How often is that the case? The city of Lansing does not routinely check to make sure such assessments are done, and the state departments that administer federal regulations for workers and the environment, too, rely on the self-reporting of contractors — in some cases, these agencies will learn about a demolition through the news media, or by a complaint.

The way Merrill witnessed it, construction crews showed up around March 17 to take down the house. The crews started the work, but stopped, leaving the house partially torn down. Then, around the end of March, the demolition started up again. Between those dates, Merrill said a truck showed up that appeared to be from an environmental testing company. Merrill took photos of the demolition site, after work started back up, which shows it wrapped with red tape warning of an asbestos hazard.

The house at 806 N. Cedar was demolished because it was deemed unsafe for occupancy by the city’s code compliance office. The house was one of four (825 Clayton St., 1619 Bailey St., and 812 Heald Place) that went before Lansing City Council last September as part of the city’s “make safe or demolish” process. Once approved by Council, a “make safe or demolish” order kicks off a process that gives a property owner 60 days to pull permits and bring a home up to code. If the property owner does not, the city will contract with a construction company to tear the house down.

As part of the contract, the city requires that the contractor comply with regulations regarding environmental cleanup. In this case, the contractor, Youngstrom Contracting, located in Ionia, did not do an asbestos assessment before it started demolition on March 17, a city of Lansing code compliance officer said Tuesday.

The officer, Craig Whitford, who works for the city’s Planning and Neighborhood Development Department, said that a former resident of 806 N. Cedar called the state Occupational Safety and Health Administration about the demolition. On March 17, MIOSHA went to the job site and told the contractor to get an asbestos assessment done before it continued. The contractor complied, Whitford said, and demolition was completed on March 26.

“As with any contract, they’ve got certain requirements they have to meet,” Whitford said. “In this case they weren’t following it.”

Youngstrom did not return a call seeking comment.

Bob Johnson, director of the Planning Department, said that the actual contract is handled through the city’s Finance Department and his department only checks that utilities are shut off and that the house has actually been demolished. “When it comes down to the handling of the site — environmentally — that’s the responsibility of the contractor,” Johnson said. “When they bid on the work, they’re saying, ‘I’m responsible for this.’”

When asked for a list of demolition contractors, the city’s purchasing department said the information would have to be gotten through a Freedom of Information Act Request. The purchasing department is a division within the Finance Department.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency delegates asbestos abatement to two state agencies: the Department of Natural Resources and the Environment, and MIOSHA. Demolition contractors are supposed to notify these agencies if they are dealing with asbestos removal if it is found to be above a certain threshold.

Robert Pawlowski, director of MIOSHA’s construction safety and health division, said his agency is conducting an investigation into the demolition at 806 N. Cedar to determine whether the contractor followed proper asbestos abatement procedures. He said that he is not aware of any other investigations being conducted on job sites in Lansing. Pawlowski said that the investigation would determine whether the levels of asbestos in the house, if any, were enough that the contractor had to notify MIOSHA. MIOSHA regulations for asbestos state that no employee can be exposed to more than 0. 1 fiber per cubic centimeter of air over an eight-hour period. The regulations also set forth parameters for air quality testing on a job site.

“If there was enough that needed to be removed, potentially there’s a violation,” he said.

But Pawlowski said that since the house has already been demolished, it may be hard to determine how much, if any, asbestos was in the house.

“It’s difficult once you get a pile of rubble lying there,” he said. “We will do our best to iron that out through investigation.”

Pawlowski said that MIOSHA received a complaint about 806 N. Cedar, which is why it responded to the job site.

806 N. Cedar and the three other houses that were demolished around the same time through “make safe or demolish,” do not appear in a database of asbestos removal project notifications kept by the state Department of Energy, Labor and Economic Growth, of which MIOSHA is a part.

Robert McCann, a spokesman for the state Department of Natural Resources and the Environment, said that the contractor gave the agency proper notification for 806 N. Cedar, but the department has no notice for the homes on Heald Place and Clayton Street. McCann said the home on Bailey Street did not require notification, but he was unsure whether it was because it was an emergency demolition. McCann said that the DNRE was in contact with the city regarding demolitions.

Whitford said that after the 806 N. Cedar situation, Robert Christmas, who administers National Emissions Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants for the state, called to talk about the contract and bids for the demolition. Whitford said he then invited Christmas to talk to Planning and Neighborhood Development, and members of the City Attorney’s office, Operations and Maintenance and the Finance Department.

Whitford said the purpose of the meeting was informational, and so that the various departments understand regulations regarding asbestos.

“At the end, all we want is compliance,” Whitford said. “That is what the state wants, that is what the city wants. We are here to protect the health, safety and welfare of the city.”

In response to questions about whether the city should ensure that contractors are following state procedure for asbestos removal, Johnson said that the city could, but it may not be 100 percent reliable because no one in the Planning Department is trained in inspecting environmental contaminates.

“Can we look at a way to modify this? You betcha,” he said. “But at the same time it’s going to be rather superficial.”

When asked whether any new procedures for the city could come out of this, Whitford said that he does not know, and that it’s still being worked on.

Mike Allen, an environmental health specialist with the Ingham County Health Department, said that asbestos is less a short-term problem than long term if it blows into a house or deposits on a lawn. According to the EPA, asbestos was a popular building material throughout the 19th and
20th centuries. Asbestos is a natural mineral fiber and was used in
everything from floor tiles, to wallboard, to pipe insulation. Asbestos
is dangerous when inhaled and has been linked to lung diseases like
mesothelioma, asbestosis and cancer. Allen said he would like to see
more cities enact demolition ordinances that would speak to controlling
the release of asbestos — and perhaps other contaminates like mercury,
which can be found in thermostats, and lead. He pointed to Lansing
Township, which created a demolition ordinance when it saw that old GM
plants would be torn down.

County Treasurer Eric Schertzing, said the Ingham County Land Bank Fast
Track Authority, which he oversees, demolishes some homes — and
refurbishes and sells others — but always does an environmental
assessment beforehand. Schertzing said that environmental abatement can
cost a few thousand dollars.

Both he and Johnson estimated the cost of demolishing a house at about $8,000.

difference between the Land Bank’s process and the city’s “make safe or
demolish” process is that the Land Bank owns the property it is
demolishing. In the case of 806 N. Cedar, the property owner is a Utah
company called Go Invest Wisely LLC. A “make safe or demolish” order,
Johnson said, is an enforcement action, and can be stopped by a
property owner with a court order.

addition to Lansing’s “make safe or demolish” orders, the city has
received federal stimulus funding — known as the Neighborhood
Stabilization Program — to tear down approximately 250 houses in an
area bordering Mt. Hope Road on the south, the city’s east and west
boundaries, and Grand River Avenue on the north. However, these demolitions are a different process than “make safe or demolish.” With
NSP funds, the city buys bank-foreclosed properties at a discount and
either rehabilitates or demolishes them. Johnson said the city would
perform environmental assessments before tearing down any of the 250

Merrill has
hired attorney Mark Canady to help him figure out what happened at 806
N. Cedar. Canady says he has filed a Freedom of Information Act request
with the city for any information on asbestos at the property, but has
not heard a response.

says the dust is so bad that he has packed most of his furniture into a
truck and plans to go live elsewhere for the time being.

“It’s their dust,” he said.

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