Air quality regulators issued a violation notice to a prominent Santa Ana developer Friday, after tests showed improper removal of cancer-causing asbestos during the demolition of a church being replaced by a controversial 37-story office building.
Officials from the South Coast Air Quality Management District took samples from the Santa Ana site after three residents complained to the agency about what they thought were improper demolition practices.
One, Thomas Gordon, a building inspector specializing in asbestos for the Los Angeles Unified School District, took debris from the site and paid for tests that showed abnormally high levels of asbestos.
District officials said the developer, Mike Harrah, and his contractor, Jordan Demolition of Garden Grove, could each be fined between $1,000 and $50,000 for each day the violation existed. The district will negotiate the fine with Harrah and Jordan after researching whether either has previous violations, said district spokesman Sam Atwood.
Opponents of the office building believe Harrah gets special treatment from city officials. They unsuccessfully sought to stop the project through a ballot measure, arguing it would bring more traffic to an already densely packed community.
Harrah is preparing to build a multimillion-dollar green glass tower by demolishing a 1950s-era church.
Regulators said Harrah did not do a thorough asbestos survey, did not correctly remove asbestos and failed to properly store the material. The district will require Harrah to conduct a new asbestos survey, said Carole Coy, who heads the district's compliance programs. It was not clear how long the project would be delayed.
Earlier this week, Harrah said those asking questions about the asbestos removal "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."
Harrah could not be reached for comment Friday.
Asbestos had many industrial uses, including in brake linings, insulation and roofing products. Its health effects range from shortness of breath and coughing to an often fatal cancer known as mesothelioma.
Air quality officials summoned to the scene by residents found asbestos under the carpet, in a section of flooring, which is not unusual in older buildings, Coy said.
"This is a place where asbestos is commonly found," she said. "We expect experienced contractors to look carefully for it."
There were 18,000 asbestos removals in the district last year and several hundred notices of violation, Coy said. Few of the removals, she said, were "quite as simple a thing as carpeting."
Gordon was pleased that regulators found the problem, but he said "it was no time to celebrate. That's an amazing amount of asbestos, and it could be blowing around. It's a deadly material."
Federal guidelines require that when asbestos totals more than 1% of the weight of a material, special procedures must be followed to dispose of it.
Of 15 samples the AQMD took from the site, four contained asbestos. The amount of asbestos ranged from 4% to 21%.