AUSTIN (KXAN) — About 120 city of Austin employees were exposed to asbestos during 2016 airport office renovations, despite some workers voicing concerns that the potentially dangerous building material could cause contamination during construction, a KXAN investigation has uncovered.
The exposure happened during February and June 2016 floor renovations in Austin-Bergstrom International Airport’s Maintenance Complex Building, which is separate from the passenger terminals and not open to the public. The maintenance building contains offices and houses dozens of staff, including maintenance administrators, plumbers, carpenters, cleaners and police at the time, according to city records.
Three aviation maintenance workers, who spoke with KXAN on a condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation, say the asbestos contamination may well have been avoided if their concerns were taken more seriously. Also, airport management may not have followed all recommended asbestos control procedures prior to renovating the offices.
“The people who run the airport put people in danger that they knew about, put them in hazardous areas and told them that they would be safe,” said one employee present for the February renovations. “I am concerned for everybody’s health who was in the building.”
In response to KXAN’s investigation, the city of Austin released a statement saying it is committed to the “health and safety of all employees,” and it is “continuing to investigate the circumstances surrounding this incident.”
“The City of Austin and the Department of Aviation would never intentionally put its employees at risk,” according to the city’s June 16 prepared statement. “The City is committed to improving internal processes, training and communication to ensure our high standards are met for a safe working environment for all staff.”
One employee said he saw workers ripping up carpet and tile and exposing black mastic, which is industrial adhesive, that could contain asbestos in February 2016, he said.
“Stop immediately and mark this area off as ‘do not disturb,’” the employee said he stated at the time. He then took his concerns about the black mastic to ABIA management, but the concerns went nowhere, he said.
Days after that employee elevated the issue to aviation management, he saw employees working on carpet renovations again, he said. The city did not stop its scheduled February and June renovations, despite worker concerns taken to management about asbestos contamination, according to interviews and city records.
The Department of Aviation initially denied the accounts of workers who spoke with KXAN.
In two separate emails, the Department of Aviation, a city agency, first told KXAN “no employees” brought asbestos concerns to management. But as we uncovered more evidence, and informed each city council member and member of the Austin Airport Advisory Commission of our findings, the city changed its story. In a later email, the city admitted two employees did speak up about asbestos concerns at the beginning of the renovations.
The Department of Aviation said it was relying on a 2004 building survey that did not show asbestos was present in the work areas, says public information officer Jim Halbrook.
Halbrook broke down the city’s timeline of events. In February and June of 2016 the city performed renovations with guidance from the 2004 survey. In response to mold concerns after a May 2016 flood, the city performed testing in the Maintenance Complex over the summer. The first retesting results came back in July showing asbestos in the building. Since the presence of asbestos conflicted with the 2004 survey, the city conducted a second test on the air that showed no asbestos in August, he said. Keep in mind, the air test was conducted several months after at least one worker brought concerns about asbestos contamination in February.
“I am concerned for everybody’s health who was in the building.”
It wasn’t until Sept. 29, 2016, that the Department of Aviation sent a notice to the city’s Building Services Department notifying it of an “accidental disturbance” of asbestos-containing material and the need for “expedited decontamination.”
Also in late September, ABIA alerted 120 staff members about the contamination. The employees were advised to fill out medical surveys, according to city records.
Workers who spoke with KXAN said their years in the construction industry helped them recognize the black mastic as a potentially dangerous substance.
“I’ve seen this stuff before. It looks like black tar, which had dried long ago and was very brittle, and when they scraped the floor and break this stuff up, part of it becomes dust and gets into the air,” the employee said. “When it gets into the air, it affects everybody in the building, not just those guys working on it.”
Eight city employees working directly on the carpet renovations have been provided medical surveillance for life, the city said. KXAN has not found any instances of employees with medical issues directly related to the 2016 asbestos exposure.
Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral with qualities that make it ideal for construction materials ranging from insulation to cement, adhesive and tile. Today, asbestos is widely restricted because prolonged exposure can cause cancer, lung damage and chronic respiratory illness. The onset of asbestos-related illness can come years or decades after exposure.
There is no safe level of exposure to asbestos, according to state records.
Any activity that can disturb asbestos in building materials is regulated by the Texas Asbestos Health Protection Rules. According to those guidelines, a public entity must perform an asbestos survey before starting any renovation project that may disturb asbestos.
“In February was when the carpet replacement was done in the offices in a corner of that building that our previous study had said did not have asbestos in that area,” Halbrook said in an on-camera interview in late May.
KXAN spoke with Halbrook after multiple requests to interview the Department of Aviation Executive Director Jim Smith and other management officials were denied.
But even when a survey doesn’t note asbestos in a certain area, if a worker encounters something that appears suspicious it should be tested, said Paul Dehlinger, an asbestos expert and consultant. Dehlinger said it is not uncommon for building surveys to miss some asbestos.
“If something looks like it was missed or uncovered during construction activities, the competent person should stop work, notify his supervisor, which that supervisor would then take it up the chain of command to the building owner to bring another licensed consultant to come and retest,” Dehlinger explained.
But that did not initially happen, according to city records and conversations with Department of Aviation employees.
It also seems that aviation management missed steps prescribed by the 2004 asbestos survey they were using.
Following KXAN’s investigation, the city said it is continuing to investigate the asbestos contamination. If violations of the Texas asbestos rules are found, they can carry a $10,000 penalty for each day the violation occurred or up to two years in jail, according to state statute.
The 2004 survey also says it should be accompanied by a management report to explain what work can be performed, if any. And if that report isn’t provided, the survey user should submit a work request or asbestos inspection request prior to any work that could disturb asbestos. We filed a public information request for any of those records – but none exist for the timeframe in question.
Following the asbestos exposure, the Department of Aviation said it changed its policy for renovations. Now, the city said it has an environmental study conducted anywhere it is planning to perform work.