John Grant spent the week of May 28 in an old basement, tearing water and steam pipes out of the Aldrich Point Condominiums. The 47 units in the five buildings were already on the market in Uptown, and the developer planned to install modern boilers and new copper piping. Like everything else Grant and his dozen-odd co-workers removed from the buildings that day, the piping materials were tossed into uncovered dumpsters. Demolition and renovation are common practices these days, when condo conversions dot nearly every neighborhood in the Twin Cities. These units, nestled at the top of the hill at 19th Street and Aldrich Avenue South, just up the street from the Walker Art Center, had originally been constructed between 1905 and 1908. After many years on the rental market, they'd be getting handsome new counters, new tilework, and new plumbing fixtures. The developers would sell them for between $99,900 and $329,000.
On May 11, when Grant and other workers first began major demo work in the basements, they asked construction foreman Brad Liebl if the old buildings held asbestos, a common insulating and fireproofing material of the era. Grant says that Liebl told them, as he had before, that he had been assured that the buildings were asbestos-free.
Grant had been working for City Village Homes, the company that owns Aldrich Point Condominiums, for a couple of weeks when he began the demo project in Uptown. Since he started the job, Grant says, he'd been told that the structures didn't contain any of the tiny and hazardous fibrous minerals that, when inhaled, are known to cause asbestosis, mesothelioma, and lung cancer. For the most part, Grant says, he didn't worry about handling any of the materials, having been a laborer for more than 20 years. But this time, Grant says, his fellow crewmembers were exposed to what could be large amounts of asbestos, as were any nearby neighbors who may have come near the dumpsters. Currently, two of the 47 units at Aldrich Point are occupied.
"I've never seen anything like it," Grant says of the material that covered his body and the basements after the pipe removal. "I've never been slugging pipes and had powder coming down on my face."
The plumbers who came on May 30 to install copper fittings immediately recognized the material that now hung in the air. The following day the Pollution Control Agency and the Minnesota Department of Health showed up. These state authorities ordered City Village Homes to temporarily suspend all work. They conducted air-quality tests, and directed the sealing of three contaminated basements. By the time the monitoring was performed, however, employees had already been exposed. A few days later, OSHA came out to investigate the working conditions.
John Ray, another laborer on the site, says a PCA employee named Jackie Deneen informed him that he needed to be tested for asbestos exposure. "It was everywhere," he says. "There were people working on that site who didn't know it, but they were dragging it home every day to their kids." Ray now wonders if there were other materials he handled and removed in the weeks prior to the shutdown that also contained asbestos. Both Ray and Grant have since quit their jobs with City Village.
The findings of the PCA, OSHA, and MDH are not made public until the investigations are closed, which often takes months. OSHA spokesperson James Honerman, however, confirms that the department is conducting a health investigation regarding asbestos removal. And according to Bruce Lange in the asbestos abatement unit at the MDH, none of the properties at Aldrich Point had received a permit from the MDH for any type of asbestos removal since 1994, when they were under previous owners. In residential structures that contain five or more dwellings, removal of more than six square feet, ten linear feet, or one cubic foot of asbestos-containing materials must be regulated by the MDH and done only by licensed abatement contractors. (On June 5, after employees were exposed and the site was visited by the MDH and the PCA, Aardvark Abatement Contracting received a removal permit for 1,000 linear feet of asbestos from the Aldrich Avenue job site.)
Aldrich Point sales manager Bruce Johnson denies that any employees were exposed to asbestos and maintains that employees did not remove any asbestos from the buildings. The condo-development owner, Noel Kleindl, who controls companies under the names Aldrich Point LLC, City Village Homes, Urban Housing Inc., and Urban Housing Co., did not return requests for comment.
The construction foreman Liebl, who was in charge of the site until apparently leaving last week, paints a different picture. He believes employees did remove asbestos and that a number of people were exposed to the hazardous material. And he allows that a number of people were exposed to the hazardous material. "To play it safe," Liebl says, "I'd say everybody that was working here and anyone who walked through was exposed." Liebl says the company received permits for emergency cleanup of the surrounding property and that the asbestos was moved from the open dumpsters into PCA-approved covered containers.
Liebl reports that an abatement company in Bloomington called Braun Intertech conducted a "phase one" asbestos survey in September or October. The survey raised concerns about the boilers, he recounts, and noted that if further renovation were to be done on the buildings, a "phase two" survey would need to be completed.
When asked if City Pages could review the survey, Liebl says that would be impossible. "It's in the basement, and we're not allowed to go in the basement," he says. "No one is." Braun Intertech reports that they do not release any information about their clients.
Liebl also acknowledges that employees were advised to get tested for exposure, and he says that as far as he knows, City Village Homes will pay for it under workers' compensation. Another manager with City Village Homes, Ian Vandeventer, however, still denies that any employees were at any risk. "They might have touched [asbestos]," he says. "But it still hasn't been confirmed that it was a health risk."
John Ray finds such denials infuriating. "I can't believe they would say any of that," he says. "It's so depressing that it's almost funny. Almost." As of press time, the contaminated basements remained sealed.