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Asbestos Warning Stalls Project

Testing interrupts demolition of a church where O.C.'s tallest building will go.

July 06, 2006|Jennifer Delson | Times Staff Writer

Air quality regulators have stopped demolition of a Santa Ana church, needed to make way for a controversial 37-story office tower, after residents complained that asbestos was being removed improperly.

The South Coast Air Quality Management District, which rarely closes down work sites, took the action Friday after receiving complaints from three residents, agency spokesman Sam Atwood said. One of them, Thomas Gordon, is a building inspector specializing in asbestos for the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Gordon said his own tests showed that asbestos at the Santa Ana work site was three times more than federal regulations allowed without special handling.

"Asbestos is deadly," he said. "This is not like secondhand smoke that goes away. These guys were bashing down the building and releasing these fibers into the air."

Mike Harrah, developer of the future office tower known as One Broadway Plaza, said the asbestos was "encapsulated" under the flooring of the church and posed no risk.

Opponents of the office tower, which would be the tallest building in Orange County, have scrutinized Harrah's dealings with the city, contending that the owner of 56 buildings in the downtown area receives special treatment.

He said it was no surprise that opponents "are picking on me, but this is no problem. They are trying to show we are cutting corners. We are a big company and very sophisticated. We don't do that."

Jackie Damasco, co-owner of Jordan Demolition of Garden Grove, said she received a report "indicating no asbestos" was present before demolition began. She said asbestos was found when a 12-square-foot section of the floor was pulled up.

Damasco said this was the first of her work sites to be shut down in 25 years.

"This is a nightmare," Damasco said, adding that Harrah opponents "are using me as a scapegoat to get Mike."

Gordon, the school district asbestos inspector, said he was not opposed to the office tower but was worried about the demolition.

The results of tests taken Friday by the air quality district at the 1001 North Broadway work site were not yet available, Atwood said.

Gordon and others said the city should have responded initially to their concerns instead of shifting responsibility to the air quality district.

"It was a big effort to get anyone from the city to get involved. Are they giving [Harrah] special treatment?" Gordon asked.

City Manager David N. Ream and his assistant, Mark Lawrence, were unavailable for comment Wednesday.

Before having a building demolished, a developer must notify the air quality district. If asbestos is known to be present, the developer must prepare a cleanup plan.

A March 2006 asbestos report on the site, commissioned by Harrah, showed asbestos in two of 19 building material samples and recommended that asbestos be removed before demolition. The report, by the Environmental Monitoring Group of Westminster, indicated that the material contained enough asbestos that federal law required its removal.

Harrah said asbestos was removed but the additional asbestos was not discovered until demolition began.

Atwood said that if his agency's tests showed levels of asbestos at more than 1% of the weight of the sample, the agency would have to approve a cleanup plan.

Harrah said a subcontractor had already created a plan and he expected to renew demolition in the coming week.

"Nothing goes perfect on a construction site," Harrah said. "We are dealing with an old building, and public safety will remain a No. 1 priority for us."

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