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Contractor's Work Inside Hospital Suspended for Asbestos Inquiry : Safety: Quake-damaged walls at St. Johns that contain the substance were demolished. The firm has no license to handle the carcinogen but denies wrongdoing.

March 30, 1994|JEFF KRAMER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A contractor renovating St. Johns Hospital in Santa Monica may have improperly removed asbestos from the quake-damaged facility and has been ordered to suspend all interior demolition work pending an investigation, a regional air quality official said Tuesday.

Sam Atwood, a spokesman for the South Coast Air Quality Management District, said the Long Beach-based contractor, Dillingham Construction N.A. Inc., tore down stucco walls in the hospital's main and south wings that contained asbestos. The company is not licensed by the state to remove the cancer-causing material, which is used for insulation.

"We don't know if they did anything wrong yet, but what we're investigating is that they did demolish a number of interior walls" that contained asbestos, Atwood said.

St. Johns, one of the leading health care facilities in the nation and the largest employer in Santa Monica, has been closed to inpatient care due to severe damage sustained in the Jan. 17 quake.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday April 23, 1994 Home Edition Metro Part B Page 3 Column 4 Metro Desk 5 inches; 161 words Type of Material: Correction
Asbestos--A story and headline in the March 30 Metro section of The Times incorrectly stated that South Coast Air Quality Management District officials had ordered the suspension of interior demolition work at St. John's Hospital in Santa Monica. Dillingham Construction of Long Beach has not been ordered by the AQMD to suspend work at the hospital. Because of inaccurate information provided by the AQMD, the story and the headline also said that Dillingham does not have a license to remove asbestos. The AQMD now says the company does have such a license. In addition, the story quoted an AQMD official as saying asbestos was found in debris from the main and south wings where Dillingham was working. The AQMD now says that no asbestos was found in the debris from either wing where Dillingham was working. Dillingham says none of its employees were exposed to asbestos. An AQMD official has clarified that asbestos was found in another wing, where Abatec Inc. was working. Abatec, which has been the asbestos removal contractor for the hospital for four years, says it has used the proper equipment and accepted abatement procedures in all its work.

Consequently, the most immediate health threat of any asbestos contamination appears to be to construction workers. Several of them, speaking on the condition that they not be named, expressed anger at being unwittingly exposed to the life-threatening substance without proper protection.

"I've breathed tons of this crap," one said. "I've got the stuff dripping on me all day long. I'm scared."

Shuman Chan, project manager for Dillingham, denied any wrongdoing, contending that the workers are instructed to leave asbestos trouble spots to a company that specializes in its removal. "We do the proper procedure that we're supposed to," Chan said.

Earlier this month, the air quality agency took samples of walls demolished by Dillingham crews and found they contained more than 1% asbestos, the legal definition of asbestos-containing material. The agency's investigation will focus on whether Dillingham failed to take standard precautions or if company officials had good reason to believe the walls were free of asbestos.

The company has until Thursday to submit requested documents to the air quality agency. It was uncertain how long the investigation might take.

The state Division of Occupational Safety and Health also is investigating the matter after receiving several anonymous complaints. An official there declined to comment on the status of the probe.

A survey conducted for the hospital in 1986 showed a network of asbestos-covered pipes running behind many interior walls, Atwood said, but the walls themselves were never checked for asbestos content.

Hospital officials were unavailable for comment yesterday, a St. Johns spokesman said.

The air quality agency also is investigating the performance of a licensed asbestos removal company, Abatec Inc. The Mission Viejo firm has been working in the hospital's north wing, which has been deemed beyond repair and is scheduled to be demolished.

According to Atwood, an agency inspector spotted 75 to 100 bags of wall debris that had not been wetted down to keep asbestos fibers from escaping into the air.

The inspector also noted that Abatec was not using an approved "hand-glove" removal technique that protects against air pollution.

Abatec spokesman Dennis Hanna suggested that the inspector wrongly concluded that workers were removing asbestos improperly when, in fact, they were merely knocking down walls to gain access to asbestos-covered pipes.

As for the bags of debris, he said, "All of our bags are wetted and sealed at the end of the shift."

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