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Panelists Urge Statewide Halt to Asbestos Cleanup Jobs

December 22, 1987|DOUGLAS SHUIT | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Enforcement of the state's asbestos safety law is so lax that the firm cleaning up the cancer-causing material at a Capitol garage is among the hundreds working without the required license, an Assembly labor committee was told Monday.

Infuriated Democrats on the committee blamed lack of enforcement on Gov. George Deukmejian's efforts to save the state money by trying to dismantle the Cal/OSHA worker safety program and turn it over to the federal government.

The asbestos cleanup work in the Capitol's underground garage was suspended last Friday because of alleged safety violations. But work by other unlicensed firms continues at numerous other state offices, school district buildings and industrial sites throughout California, lawmakers were told.

The disclosures infuriated a Democrat-dominated panel of lawmakers listening to testimony at a daylong hearing of the Assembly Committee on Labor and Employment.

'Shut Down ... Right Now'

"At least 600 to 800 asbestos removal jobs in schools, hospitals, and offices are being done illegally without safety plans," said Assemblyman Richard E. Floyd (D-Hawthorne), chairman of the committee. Floyd said the state's failure to enforce the law was endangering the health of "thousands" of asbestos removal workers, students in schools and workers in buildings where the asbestos is being removed.

"Every damn job in California ought to be shut down and I mean right now," Floyd said.

Asbestos particles cannot be seen with a naked eye, but are highly carcinogenic. If breathed into the lungs, the particles can lodge there and eventually cause cancer or other lung diseases.

State law requires "danger" signs to be posted at asbestos cleanup sites because the particles can be so lethal. Workers are required to wear spacesuit-type body coverings and breathe through respirators.

Licensing is required under a 1985 law enacted to ensure that contractors meet regulations requiring that workers be trained on the safest ways to handle asbestos and be given regular medical checkups. The state law also requires that firms use proper ventilation and other equipment to contain the cancer-causing particles in order to be licensed.

The firm scraping asbestos from pipes in the Capitol garage basement, Northern Asbestos Co., had been rejected once for state licensing because it did not meet one or more of the requirements, state officials said.

Northern Asbestos officials were unavailable for comment Monday.

After hearing testimony that the law was being widely ignored, Floyd and Sen. Bill Greene (D-Los Angeles), head of the Senate labor committee, called for an immediate halt to all asbestos removal work in the state, warning that inexperienced or improperly trained workers could be causing more harm than good.

The head of the Cal/OSHA worker safety program told the Assembly Committee on Labor and Employment that as of Monday only five of about 600 contractors in the asbestos cleanup field now have the proper certification required by the state.

Under heavy, and frequently angry, questioning, Robert Stranberg, chief of the Division of Occupational Safety and Health, said that although state law requires licensing, neither he nor any other Cal/OSHA officials enforce the law.

Stranberg said the reason for that was a decision by Deukmejian earlier this year to turn over the Cal/OSHA program to the federal government. A state appellate court ruled in October that Deukmejian's action was illegal, but the governor is appealing the decision to the state Supreme Court. Until a final ruling is delivered, Stranberg said, enforcement is the federal government's job under Deukmejian's edict.

'We Don't Enforce It'

"We require the registration, but we don't enforce it," Stranberg told the lawmakers.

Ronald T. Rinaldi, director of the Department of Industrial Relations, which oversees Cal/OSHA, said the state turned over the job safety program in July to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration. He said there are no immediate plans to halt projects now under way.

Rinaldi and other Deukmejian Administration officials said that they were confident that the federal government would run a satisfactory asbestos safety program. Rinaldi said that some federal safety standards are, in fact, tougher than the state's standards.

"The courts are going to have to deal with whether or not we are responsible for enforcement," Rinaldi said. "We expect any day to hear from the state Supreme Court."

Agency Writes Letters

Stranberg said his agency relies for the most part on writing letters to various state agencies advising them of the law.

One letter, written Dec. 8 by Stranberg's chief deputy, Frank R. Ciafalo, to state Architect Michael J. Bocchicchio, was released by the committee. It stated that "contractors who fail to register are in violation of state law and cannot lawfully engage in asbestos abatement work."

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