AUSTIN (KXAN) — A KXAN Investigation is making waves with the city of Austin and the group tasked with recommending change at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.
This development comes after airport workers revealed to KXAN a health and safety concern they say airport management ignored. It led to the revelation of a significant asbestos contamination during a construction project there last year.
KXAN’s investigation forced the city to admit it had not been forthcoming about those concerns initially, eventually saying workers had indeed warned their bosses about the cancer-causing substance eight months before 120 employees were officially notified of the exposure. Since then, management has changed its policy to check for asbestos before beginning any construction.
The investigation also prompted the city council to call for a closer look at the problem. The city’s Airport Advisory Commission took up the issue Tuesday night. The asbestos exposure topped the commission’s agenda. Each member was armed with details in a packet KXAN put together ahead of its initial investigation, outlining evidence of the problem so they knew what questions to ask airport management themselves.
ABIA’s Chief Operating Officer Patti Edwards was front and center, as she was called to explain the steps airport management is taking now. For starters, retesting all of the buildings on the property for asbestos.
Edwards says she’s also working with the city’s asbestos and mold abatement team for guidance and direction on how to establish a training program.
Edwards said “we can all do better,” assuring the commission ABIA is taking precautions so this doesn’t happen again.
“As a department, we could have done a better job documenting and highlighting to staff as a part of their on-boarding process how to deal with certain situations. That’s one of the things that I want to focus on, actually hiring a staff person to oversee that,” Edwards said.
When KXAN asked the airport spokesperson about the details of that position Tuesday night, he didn’t immediately have the answers but said he knows no position has been posted.
“I can assure you that no matter what you’ve heard or the stories, we’re 100 percent committed to our employee safety,” Edwards said, telling the commission she’s going to do another round of meetings next month with impacted employees who work in the maintenance complex to do a refresher training on working in and around areas that could have an asbestos exposure, and provide an update on the steps management is taking to establish better processes.
Edwards also said she wants to encourage those who haven’t signed up for medical testing to do so. As KXAN first reported last month, the city conducted an emergency cleanup of the affected area and offered eight airport workers directly exposed to the asbestos lifetime annual health checks. A reminder the asbestos was not discovered in the public terminal and the material is harmful if it’s in the air and breathed in over a long period of time. Right now, the only tests provided to KXAN show it was not airborne, though that testing was done six months after initial complaints to management.
KXAN first reported on the asbestos exposure in June. At that time, it did not appear members of the Airport Advisory Commission were aware of the exposure. KXAN provided each commission member with an outline of our findings.
The commission is composed of citizens appointed by City Council members and airport staff; it advises the airport on construction projects, grants and the yearly budget.
During the spring and early summer, KXAN spoke with multiple airport employees with knowledge of the renovations. They said workers alerted airport management about possible asbestos exposure, but management didn’t stop the work to check for the hazardous material.
In February and June of 2016, Department of Aviation carpenters and maintenance workers renovated the carpets and floors in multiple maintenance complex offices. Testing would later confirm the presence of asbestos in black mastic flooring adhesive.
About eight workers were exposed to the asbestos when they ripped up the carpet and tiles and scraped the floor, according to city records.
Workers with knowledge of the renovation and contamination told KXAN they were concerned the city and airport management downplayed the issue and failed to act after being alerted to possible asbestos and contamination.
KXAN spoke with one employee present at the time of the renovations and confirmed the details with other employees also present during construction. Each worker spoke on a condition of anonymity and said they feared retaliation from airport management.
“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.”
The city initially denied the whistleblowers’ claims, relayed through KXAN. In June the city said, “no employees brought concerns to management during February or May regarding the work.” Later, the city reversed itself in an email.
“Once the work began, two employees expressed concerns about possible asbestos contamination in the work areas. Aviation officials again consulted the survey and allowed work to proceed,” a city spokesman said in June 16 prepared statement.
Previous City Response
The city said airport officials referenced a 2004 asbestos survey of the maintenance complex, which did not show asbestos present in the work areas.
“The cty of Austin is committed to the health and safety of all employees. We are continuing to investigate the circumstances surrounding this incident,” a city spokesman said in a prepared statement. “The city of Austin and the Department of Aviation would never intentionally put its employees at risk.”
In late September and early June the Department of Aviation notified about 120 employees that worked in the building, including police officers and administrators, of the exposure. Those employees were told they could fill out workplace injury forms and make worker’s compensation claims, according to records obtained by KXAN.