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Who’s to blame for the Charleston airport’s asbestos issues?

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By Liz Segrist
Published Oct. 20, 2014
From the Oct. 6 print issue of the Business Journal

With the terminal renovation project about halfway completed at Charleston International Airport, construction crews have discovered more asbestos from the terminal’s construction in the 1980s and airport officials are trying to determine who is responsible.

Recent test results confirmed that the mastic used as waterproofing in the exterior Concourse B stairwell walls has asbestos-containing material, Airports Director Sen. Paul Campbell said earlier this month.

Airport officials are looking into who was responsible for using asbestos materials when the terminal was built in the 1980s and whether it was illegal at the time. (Photo/Liz Segrist)
Airport officials are looking into who was responsible for using asbestos materials when the terminal was built in the 1980s and whether it was illegal at the time. (Photo/Liz Segrist)
The same asbestos-laced glue was originally discovered on the terminal walls and the outside walls of Concourse A in January during construction as part of the Terminal Redevelopment and Improvement Program.

When high levels of airborne asbestos fibers are released, they can cause pulmonary diseases such as mesothelioma and asbestosis, as well as cancers of the lungs, esophagus, colon, pancreas and stomach.

These diseases typically do not show up until 15 to 30 years after exposure. The greater the exposure to asbestos fibers, the bigger the chance a person has of developing a pulmonary disease, according to the state Department of Health and Environmental Control.

Campbell stressed that the affected areas are not accessible to the public and that employees have been notified of the findings. The materials are on “the secure side of the airport,” meaning travelers do not have access to the stairwells, and the asbestos materials are on exterior walls.

“The public is not exposed in any way. It’s not a big issue for us other than additional costs and delays, but we can handle it. We just have to make sure we protect the safety of everyone,” Campbell said, noting that the area will be covered during removal to ensure asbestos fibers are not released into the air.

The airport is currently developing a plan for removal of the recent findings. Motley Rice attorney John Herrick said the airport followed appropriate protocols to ensure no one was exposed, but he said the remediation will increase costs for the airport’s $189 million renovation project.

The Charleston County Aviation Authority approved a $670,000 contract in May for asbestos removal for the initial findings. The authority will likely have to spend more money to safely remove the additional asbestos.

The authority is considering whether to sue the parties responsible for using the asbestos-laced materials to recoup some of the costs associated with their removal, but it has not yet decided.

“This was built in the ’80s. It (asbestos) shouldn’t have been there, and we continue to find more,” Campbell said during the aviation authority’s September meeting. “It’s not slowing us down, but it is adding to the cost.”

Who is responsible?

Herrick said that Campbell is correct from a public health standpoint that asbestos should not have been used at the time, but not necessarily from a regulatory one.

The Environmental Protection Agency began banning some asbestos-containing materials in the 1970s, including spray-applied, asbestos-containing material for fireproofing, insulation and other purposes.

In 1989, the EPA issued a final rule under Section 6 of Toxic Substances Control Act banning most asbestos-containing products, but the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that in 1991.

“Most of the public assumes, because of the well-known carcinogenic nature of asbestos, its use in products in the United States has been banned. And that’s partially true ... as for the materials encountered at the Charleston Airport, the frightening part is that those can still be legally sold,” Herrick wrote on his law firm’s blog, noting that most manufacturers have found substitutes for their products but that asbestos-containing mastics or glues are still sold in the U.S. at Lowe’s or Home Depot, for example.

Herrick said the general contractor from the original terminal project, and potentially the approving architect, would ultimately be responsible for using or approving the asbestos-materials. If the manufacturer of the asbestos-containing glue failed to warn buyers about asbestos, it could be responsible as well, though Herrick said manufacturers of these materials can be difficult to identify, especially if decades have passed.

“With respect to who is responsible for the waterproofing materials, the airport will have to look back and talk to the people involved in the building of the airport,” Herrick said. “When asbestos was used during this time, most of it wasn’t illegal. The question is: Was someone negligent in using it? Was someone not transparent?”

Contract missing

The authority is investigating who manufactured the asbestos-containing materials, the chain of contractors involved in the project and the party ultimately responsible for using asbestos materials when it was common knowledge at the time that they were harmful.

Tracking down every contractor, subcontractor and supplier could prove to be difficult since 30 years have passed, according to Arnold Goodstein, the authority’s legal counsel. Some of the contractors involved or the manufacturers that made the materials might have shuttered operations, merged with other companies or changed their names.

Planning documents, meeting minutes and airport designs that have been packed away for decades are being reviewed by airport staff.

The Charleston Regional Business Journal filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the authority to gain access to both the board’s meeting minutes from 1982 to 1986 and the contractor’s contract for the work on the terminal.

Meeting minutes from 1983 showed that the board voted 5-to-1 to award Great Southwest Corp. a $15.98 million contract to build the Passenger Terminal Building. The Great Southwest Corp.’s contract is missing from the authority’s records.

Airport officials say the contract for the Clearwater, Fla.-based construction firm might have been misplaced when offices were relocated during construction, or it could have been ruined from flooding during Hurricane Hugo. They did confirm Great Southwest as the contractor for the project.

The state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation said it does not have a copy of the contract on file and that Great Southwest Corp. is no longer licensed in South Carolina. Calls to the company’s listed number were not returned.

Meeting minutes also show that in 1979 the board approved Howard Needles Tammen & Bergendoff of Kansas City, Mo., to perform the engineering, architectural and management services for the airport project.

The firm was charged with creating detailed construction plans, cost estimates and project schedules, as well as preparing construction management bids. According to documents, the firm would “make a final inspection of each construction contract and advise the authority and contractor of all work remaining to be completed before a contract can be recommended.” Calls were not returned by press time.

Minutes show that Davis & Floyd performed engineering work and Lucas Stubbs Pascullis Powell & Penney Ltd. worked as architects, both operating as subconsultants to Howard Needles Tammen & Bergendoff.

Peat, Marwick, Mitchell & Co. created the Terminal Redevelopment Plan for the authority during this time, documents show. The new airport terminal at Charleston International Airport opened as it exists today in 1985.

“Despite the fact that most asbestos was not outlawed or banned at the time or now, no reasonable manufacturer would have sold products with asbestos because of the potential risk of harm, and no reasonable contractor or architect would use them,” Herrick said. “They knew it was harmful at the time.”

Informing the public, removing asbestos

Asbestos-containing materials likely do not cause a threat unless they are damaged and asbestos fibers are released into the air, according to DHEC.

But when those asbestos-laced materials are damaged — like when the construction workers knocked down walls during airport renovation — asbestos fibers can become airborne and dangerous.

When asbestos was first discovered during the renovation, airport officials and construction managers ceased demolition immediately in affected areas, barricaded the public from the areas and notified DHEC officials of their findings. Air quality monitoring systems were installed in the demolition areas.

DHEC is continuing to work with airport staff and project contractors to ensure that the asbestos is removed in accordance with state and federal regulations, DHEC spokeswoman Cassandra Harris said in an emailed statement.

The authority approved a change order for Palmetto Civil/Deco Joint Venture and Terracon Consultants to remove the asbestos. Through Palmetto Civil, Eastern Environmental LLC performed the asbestos removal work from an area near the baggage claim, a wall in Concourse B, some floor tiles and around the ticketing area, according to board documents from an April meeting.

“The uncovering of concealed asbestos-containing material is not unusual in a building that is nearly 30 years old and in a construction project of this magnitude,” the authority’s statement said earlier this year. “More importantly, the airport is acting swiftly to address this, and we want the traveling public to know that the airport is safe.”

Reach staff writer Liz Segrist at 843-849-3119 or @lizsegrist on Twitter.

(Editor’s Note: The Oct. 6 print story in the Business Journal included an incorrect figure for the cost of the terminal renovation project. The cost is about $189 million. The Business Journal regrets the error).

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