SACRAMENTO — In an escalation of the controversy over widespread noncompliance with the law requiring safety licensing of firms that remove asbestos, Controller Gray Davis announced Wednesday that he will not pay bills submitted by unlicensed contractors for asbestos removal at state buildings.
Davis said at a press conference that the state paid at least $2.2 million for asbestos removal in 1987, but that he is unsure how much of that went to unlicensed firms. He added that he may seek to recover some of the money. So far, he has withheld payment of $313,000 to two firms.
Davis also told reporters that he will demand a full accounting by the Office of the State Architect and the state's division of occupational safety and health (Cal/OSHA) on why the 1987 law requiring contractors to be examined for safety and training procedures was "disregarded."
'Compromised Public Safety'
"The improper removal of asbestos can be deadlier than asbestos itself," Davis asserted. "These two state agencies have flagrantly disregarded the law and compromised public safety."
Davis' move represented further criticism by Democrats of the Deukmejian Administration on the asbestos removal issue. The controversy first arose at a legislative hearing Dec. 21 when it was revealed that only six of the state's 546 certified contractors had complied with asbestos safety licensing.
The safety licensing law went into effect Jan. 1, 1987, but Cal/OSHA did not fully implement registration regulations until May. State officials waited until August to officially notify contractors of the new regulations.
On Dec. 22, the Department of General Services ordered a halt to asbestos removal work at all state buildings, saying the order would remain in effect until contractors could prove they were in compliance with the law. State officials said Wednesday that some of the work has resumed. However, only 16 companies have registered to date, according to a spokesman for the Department of Industrial Relations. The list does not include three companies with contracts totaling more than $10 million to do work at the Veterans Home in Yountville, according to documents Davis provided.
He stressed that the registration law was not "purely ministerial." Davis said the purpose of the act is to protect people who work or reside in a building undergoing asbestos removal work and asbestos workers, as well as passers-by. The statute requires asbestos workers to be properly trained and equipped and provided with health insurance and worker's compensation insurance.
Asbestos particles cannot be seen by the naked eye but they are highly carcinogenic. If breathed into the lungs, the particles can lodge there and eventually cause cancer or other lung diseases.
Davis and Assemblyman Richard Floyd (D-Gardena), a longtime critic of Deukmejian on worker safety questions, contend that the governor's attempts to dismantle Cal/OSHA have left the agency in a severely weakened condition in which, among other things, it cannot enforce the registration law.
Deukmejian's office declined comment Wednesday. Ronald T. Rinaldi, director of the state's Industrial Relations Department, asserted that "the law was not disregarded" by Cal/OSHA. He said contractors were given "ample notice" about the need to register.
Curtis Soderlund, a spokesman for the Department of General Services, parent agency of the Office of the State Architect, called Davis' announcement "political." He said the agency had taken a "pro-active position" on asbestos removal from state buildings. Soderlund said the agency budgeted $12.4 million for such work last year, and he added that the figure had been increased to $13.9 million in the new budget Deukmejian just proposed.
Davis said he had informed Cal/OSHA and the Office of the State Architect that he would not pay two claims totaling $313,000 that are now pending. The claims are for work done at the Veterans Home in Yountville by Nibbi Bros. of San Francisco and work at a California Youth Authority training school by A-1 Lin-Ty Demolition Co. of La Habra.
Secretaries at both of those firms said no company official was available for comment Wednesday. Richard Stephens, a spokesman for the Department of Industrial Relations, said Wednesday that Nibbi Bros. had not registered to do asbestos removal work. He said that A-1 had an application pending.