SURFSIDE — North Beach Water District is under scrutiny from state authorities and the federal Environmental Protection Agency for improperly handling and storing asbestos cement pipes while working under contract for the Surfside Homeowners Association. An estimated seven to nine current and former workers were exposed to asbestos.
The asbestos imbroglio is already costing the association and district tens of thousands of dollars.
Surfside Homeowners Association is the governing body for Surfside Estates, a subdivision north of Ocean Park. In early October, the state Department of Labor and Industries (L&I) fined the association $27,000 for 15 violations of workplace safety laws. Twelve of the violations were deemed “serious” because they put workers at risk for asbestos-related diseases.
The HOA is legally responsible because it owns the water system. However, North Beach Water District, the small utility that provides water to Ocean Park, actually did the work. The HOA contracts North Beach to provide water to the Estates and a few smaller neighboring developments. In 2018, the association paid the district about $60,000 to provide water to about 2,200 residences and businesses.
The association is appealing the L&I fine, but more fines from the EPA and Olympic Regional Clean Air Agency could follow.
North Beach Water District General Manager Bill Neal referred questions to the homeowners association. The association’s business manager, Laura Frazier, referred questions to Bill Neal. Both eventually said they could not comment due to the open investigation.
Asbestos refers to a group of six versatile, naturally occurring minerals with similar properties. Asbestos fibers are strong and electricity and heat-resistant. They also have sound-proofing qualities and are resistant to most kinds of chemical reactions, so they have hundreds of industrial uses. Asbestos can be found in everything from roofing shingles and insulation to adhesives, car brakes, paint and fire-resistant clothing.
By the early 1900s, scientists knew asbestos miners were prone to certain illnesses. However, asbestos was viewed as a sort of miracle-material, so it continued to be widely used well into the second half of the century, when a growing body of research showed that it was hazardous. Asbestos is still legal in the U.S., but a few especially dangerous uses of the mineral have been outlawed.
Tiny, fluffy hazard
Asbestos fibers are made up of thousands of microscopic “fibrils” that can break apart and become airborne. They make their way into the body when they are ingested or inhaled. Because they don’t break down easily, they remain in the lungs or other parts of the body, causing scarring and inflammation.
There are three main asbestos-related diseases. Asbestosis is a non-cancerous chronic respiratory disease that occurs when asbestos fibers cause scarring inside the lungs. It is usually disabling or fatal. Mesothelioma is a rare cancer that forms in the lining of the lungs, abdomen, chest or heart. Asbestos is also known to cause lung cancer, especially in people who have been exposed to other known carcinogens. According to Oregon State University’s Environmental Health and Safety program, “One study found that asbestos workers who smoke are about 90 times more likely to develop lung cancer than people who neither smoke nor have been exposed to asbestos.”
Asbestos is most dangerous when it is friable, or easily crumbled and released into the air, so some asbestos products are much more dangerous than others. For example, asbestos attic insulation is very likely to release fibers, while asbestos floor tiles are not.
Asbestos cement pipes, often called transite pipes, contain anywhere from 12 to 50 percent asbestos. They were widely used from about the 1930s until the 1980s, according to the Mesothelioma Justice Network. There are hundreds of miles of asbestos water pipes in Washington. If left in the ground, they pose little danger, as long as they’re in good condition. However, they were designed to last 50 to 70 years, so pipes in many cities are starting to break down.
Old pipes can release fibers into water, but the biggest exposure risk occurs when workers replace them. According to OSU, “Water damage, continual vibration, aging, and physical impact such as drilling, grinding, buffing, cutting, sawing, or striking can break the materials down making fiber release more likely.” Most jurisdictions gradually replace asbestos pipes with safer asbestos-free ones while making repairs.
In Washington, most building owners and contractors must contact L&I and the regional Clean Air Agency before demolishing or renovating structures likely to contain asbestos. Workers are required to use protective equipment, and in some situations, only specially trained asbestos abatement companies are allowed to do the work.
Most states have fairly similar guidelines for dealing with asbestos pipes. In general, they say the pipes should be cut up as little as possible and kept saturated with water to prevent the asbestos from becoming friable. Most types of asbestos waste are supposed to be sealed in a container and delivered to an asbestos-qualified waste disposal site. With pipe, it’s common to leave it in the ground to minimize exposure. That’s not what happened in Surfside.
L&I says NBWD workers dug up 600 to 800 feet of pipe with an estimated 12 percent asbestos content without doing an exposure-risk assessment or notifying authorities. It is not clear when the work occurred. The report said workers cut up the pipe with reciprocating saws — commonly known by the trade name Sawzalls — then used a backhoe to move the crushed pieces to a site on NWBD’s Surfside property, where a pond was under construction. The asbestos was reportedly buried under the pond.
According to L&I, workers did not use protective gear and were not supervised by a “competent” person. They also allegedly did not wet the pipe, left pieces of it lying around the worksite, and did not wrap or bag pipe after removing it from trenches.
In the first half of November, the water district paid $4,543 to SLR International Corp. to supervise asbestos cleanup.
Other agencies have gotten involved. A spokesman for the Environmental Protection agency said the agency “is aware of the situation,” but declined to give any further comment. Robert Moody, a spokesman for ORCAA, the clean air agency, confirmed EPA is “involved in a substantial way.”
The water district may not have initially been truthful about the extent of the problem.
“We were told it was a small project or disturbance. That is in conflict with some preliminary reports we’ve gotten from EPA,” Moody said.
ORCAA officials are waiting to see the results of the EPA investigation before proceeding. They do not know when the report will be complete.
Moody said his agency could impose fines for failing to get the required permit and failing to give notification. ORCAA can impose fines of up to $14,915 per incident.
If EPA officials decide the situation involved willful violations of state law, the agency could press criminal charges. A few sources said they doubted it would go that far. Nonetheless, the water district appears to be bracing for a legal battle. In 2017, the district spent $6,384 on legal expenses. In 2018, the district budgeted $10,000 for legal services. As of Sept. 30, the district had spent $9,108, but planned to spend a projected $40,000 by the end of the year — a 400 percent increase. The district is budgeting $50,000 for legal costs in 2019.