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Asbestos Work Halted at State Office Buildings

December 23, 1987|DOUGLAS SHUIT and MAURA DOLAN | Times Staff Writers

SACRAMENTO — Deukmejian Administration officials ordered a halt to illegal asbestos waste removal work at state buildings Tuesday, saying the order would be in effect until contractors can prove they are complying with state law.

The action will bring an end to asbestos removal jobs under way at a number of state office buildings, including one a block from the Capitol.

Although state law requires asbestos removal firms to register with the state's Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) and comply with strict worker safety and health regulations, only six of the 546 contractors certified to work with asbestos have actually registered.

To Be Notified

"The Department of General Services will notify all contractors to cease and desist on asbestos-related work until they can supply us with evidence of compliance with the Cal/OSHA registration requirement," said Mary Bretzke, spokeswoman for the department.

Bretzke said Administration officials came to an agreement on the order late Tuesday. "We'll let the contractors know as soon as we can get the notice prepared," she said.

The governor's office continued to refuse public comment on the issue. Deukmejian's press office refused Tuesday to answer questions or issue a statement.

Ronald T. Rinaldi, director of the Department of Industrial Relations, which oversees Cal/OSHA, said the governor supports the action.

Rinaldi said all public and private agencies should make sure that firms doing asbestos removal work have the proper registration permits from Cal/OSHA.

The Administration of Gov. George Deukmejian has been under attack from Democrats in the Legislature for not enforcing the state law and for allowing firms to operate illegally.

Last summer, the governor vetoed funding for the Cal/OSHA program, including its enforcement activities, from the state budget and sought to have the federal Occupational Safety and Health program take over responsibility for worker safety in California.

But labor unions filed suit, blocking the action and leaving the program in legal limbo.

As a result, hundreds of asbestos removal firms in California have been operating without meeting legal requirements set by a new state law that took effect in January.

Under the new law, firms are not approved by Cal/OSHA unless they can meet stringent worker health and safety requirements. Firms are required to provide medical testing for workers, have sophisticated on-site equipment to monitor asbestos contaminants in the air, put employees through a training program and post bonds or provide health insurance.

Asbestos particles are highly carcinogenic. They can lodge in the lungs and eventually cause cancer or other lung disease.

Nearly 50 firms applied for registration but were rejected because they could not meet one or more of the requirements.

The firm working a block from the Capitol, Hazardous Materials Inc. of Oakland, was permitted to continue removing contaminated material from a Department of Transportation office building all day Tuesday despite twice having its application for registration rejected, state officials said.

Grounds for rejecting the firm's application involved, among other things, failure to show that it could set up an adequate safety training program for its workers.

Hazardous Materials Inc. employees, including several workers at the firm's job site in the Caltrans building, refused comment or would not return telephone calls. "I can't say anything. That is company policy, period," said John Hash, job superintendent.

Administration Assailed

Assemblyman Richard E. Floyd (D-Hawthorne), chairman of the Assembly Labor and Employment Committee that has been looking into the asbestos cleanup program, strongly criticized Administration officials for allowing Hazardous Materials to continue to operate.

"They appear absolutely unconcerned about the health and safety of state workers," he said before the announcement was made.

The order issued by the Department of General Services applies only to state asbestos cleanup jobs. In all, asbestos cleanup either has or will be undertaken in 61 state buildings.

Just what effect the order will have on thousands of other asbestos jobs around the state remains to be seen. State officials estimate that there will be between 6,000 and 7,000 asbestos cleanup operations in California this year, many of them in schools and public buildings.

The Los Angeles Unified School District announced Tuesday that it had canceled a contract with an unregistered firm that was removing asbestos at the Buchanan Street Elementary School in Highland Park.

A school district spokesman, Bill Rivera, said the contract was canceled when district officials, after reading a press report, asked to see their contractor's permit from Cal/OSHA. Rivera said another project will continue because the contractor is properly registered.

Contractors laid the blame on Cal/OSHA for not properly informing them of the legal requirement to register.

A spokesman for ATI Technologies in Brea, which is doing asbestos cleanup work at Jordan High School in Long Beach, called the bureaucratic tangle "a real rat's nest."

He said his firm has been licensed to do asbestos cleanup work since 1980 and has been attempting to comply with changes in state law that went into effect this year.

The law was signed by Deukmejian in 1985 but did not take effect until January. Cal/OSHA's registration regulations were not fully implemented until May.

One contractor, Rick Tresierras, general manager of Asbestos Clean-Up and Consultants Corp. in Los Angeles, said he was unaware of the new requirements.

"It surprises me," he said when asked about the Cal/OSHA permit requirements. "If only (six) firms in all the state have the permits, it sounds to me like there is a problem somewhere and it's not with the contractors."

Contributing to this story were staff writers Ray Perez in Orange County and Elaine Woo in Los Angeles.

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