In 1997, the Asbestos Control Unit of Air Management Services (AMS) received a citizen’s complaint that improper removal of asbestos was in progress at a former school building in Philadelphia. Upon inspection, AMS found asbestos piping that had in fact been removed improperly along with a shocking amount of asbestos contamination in the building’s basement. The former south Philadelphia elementary school posed a significant risk of emitting airborne asbestos fibers to the surrounding area, and the EPA was forced to step in to perform emergency Superfund cleanup.
The former Francis M. Drexel School is more than 120 years old, a relic of Old America. Unfortunately, asbestos was abundantly used throughout the first half of the twentieth century in construction, as a cheap and durable resource for insulation and fire-resistance. The current owner, Tan Minn Chau, intended to convert the school into a nursing home, and subjected his workers and the public to inordinate amounts of airborne asbestos through improper abatement activities.Lung cancer lawyers remind the Philadelphia public that airborne asbestos is causally linked to numerous diseases, including mesothelioma, asbestosis, and lung cancer.
EPA confirmed that Chau did not hire a licensed asbestos-removal company, and that removal would cost an estimated $200,000. In addition to the asbestos, EPA had to remove about 12 drums of hazardous materials from unknown sources and eras. The school is located in a residential neighborhood, with houses merely 40-50 feet from the site. Asbestos exposure attorneys are concerned of possible exposure to children and the public in the area surrounding 16th and Moore Streets in southwest Philadelphia.
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These actions were the latest in a series of incidents and blatantly improper handling and dumping operations engaged in by Chau. Previous sample data, visual observations and eyewitness statements had already verified the release of asbestos and potential for exposure to the public prior to 1998. Analyses of samples collected by AMS revealed the presence of asbestos from the building and sidewalk.
Much of the asbestos was removed from the building in trash bags, transported in open trucks through the streets of Philadelphia and dumped in various public locations off City streets. EPA did locate one of the dump locations, though the other two have not been located. The City of Philadelphia Streets Department used taxpayer dollars to clean the asbestos dumping location, which amounted to about $12,000.
The improper asbestos removal activities were conducted by unprotected, low-paid workers, some paid with beer. Such workers were locked in the building during the asbestos removal, and the activity was ongoing even while AMS tried to gain access. Air releases and emissions during this improper abatement were released directly to the atmosphere through open windows, as sampling revealed the presence of asbestos on window ledges.
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The air samples revealed asbestos concentrations in the air above Asbestos Hazards Emergency Response Act levels. In March 1998, officials noticed the lock and chain on the front door were missing. Investigators banged and shouted at the door, when Chau appeared in the threshold dressed in plastic bags, gloves, goggles, and an improper face mask. Small asbestos-appearing particles could be seen on his boots.
When asked what he was doing he informed EPA that he was cleaning up the asbestos abatement, and that it was ‘all clean.’ During inspection EPA found the asbestos still strewn about the basement, disturbed and airborne. The floor was covered with water, and a garden hose was running full blast. It was clear that Chau was using the hose to flush asbestos debris up the main hall, pushing it up the walls toward the end of the hall, tracking asbestos debris throughout the building and outside on the sidewalk on Moore Street.
12 out of 13 EPA samples were positive for asbestos, containing chrysotile. More than half of the samples were found to contain from 10% to 60% chrysotile asbestos. Neighbors report that drug users often entered the Site for illicit activities.
In October 1999 Chau was indicted for violations of the Clean Air Act along with two other related charges. Shortly before trial, Chau attempted to get witnesses to change their testimonies, and he was subsequently charged with obstruction of justice. He was sentenced to the lowest possible amount of time in jail, 51 months.
Asbestos exposure attorneys remind the Philadelphia public of the long latency period of asbestos-related diseases, most of which take decades to develop. If you suspect you were exposed to asbestos, and developed a related illness, contact one of our lung cancer lawyers immediately for a free legal consultation.