This month has shed light on a potential cover-up scheme that may have been happening over the past two years regarding the City of San Diego. Allegedly, San Diego city officials might have been trying to conceal or asbestos contamination in a newly purchased public building. In January of 2017, the City of San Diego entered into a twenty-year lease to own agreement with the intent to buy the former SEMPRA Energy high-rise, from Cisterra Development.
According to the public record, the City of San Diego intended to purchase the high-rise building to house and consolidate the city’s municipal workers. At the time, the City of San Diego’s Director of Real Estate Assets told the City Council that the building would only require a $10,000 exterior pressure wash job and minor cleaning. In fact, the director, Cybele Thompson, described the building to be in excellent condition.
In the beginning, the city negotiated the purchase of the 101 Ash Street Building from the owner with the notion to receive the high-rise and its condition on an “as-is” basis. Going forward, San Diego City Officials came back to the city council and asked for $30 million to renovate all 19 floors. Unsurprisingly, city officials were questioned by the council why the project was taking so long to complete, also, to the idea of more renovation construction, and the massive funds request. As stated, “City Councilwoman Barbara Bry was the first to raise questions in Spring 2018 about why the project was taking longer than anticipated and why the renovations had grown.”
In response, to the City Council and Councilwoman Bry’s inquiry, City of San Diego Chief Operating Officer Kris Michell replied, “Although the building may appear ready for occupancy, the ultimate goal is to maximize the number of staff that will be permanently located in the building and to bring the building up to current code, and the timeline for completion is forecasted around the beginning of 2019.”
In following up, about a month later, Michell then wrote in a memo to the council in April of 2018, to inform them that more renovations had to be completed due to the additional number of municipal workers that would be utilizing the building than previously intended. The memo also explained that this would entail more plumbing, heating, air-conditioning, lighting, and other renovations that would be added to the work. Shortly after that time, costs regarding the renovation work and leasing of the building went public, therefore, shedding light on the fact that the vacant building was costing the City of San Diego taxpayers around $18,000 a day to have this building.
Furthermore, other issues and events began to come to light as concerned council members and citizens inquired about the price tag of this currently empty government building. Unsurprisingly, more than citizens and council members had something to say as experts weighed in. For example, a former board member of the San Diego redevelopment agency and retired construction executive, Bill Shaw stated that “ city officials dropped the ball in examing how the building would be used and how much the renovations would cost. “The due diligence done by the city before entering the lease, knowing what their space requirements were going to be, was negligible, he said. “To go out and buy the building without knowing what it was going to cost was negligent.”
As renovation work continued, even further into 2019, more than just finances started to be heard from all parties involved with the project. Contractors and city workers were seemingly coming to odds with different aspects of the work being performed and the steps taken to prevent certain things from progressing. To elaborate, Eric Jackson, a senior construction manager, and corporate safety officer with Harris & Associates, a contractor, said he worked at the building site every day for about four months and alerted top city managers in an August 1, 2019 meeting to a host of serious issues.
During that time, Jackson reported critical access systems that are activated in cases of emergency to prevent the spread of fire were not working and needed to be replaced. Also, an airflow system, according to Jackson, was inoperable since it was retrofitted to stay in an open position. Jackson also claims that this was a serious issue regarding the transmission of managing the airflow throughout the building. With the valve or air system locked in place, contaminants such as dust, mold, and asbestos will freely roam within the ventilation systems of the building.
To back up the safety officer’s claims, reportedly, between August 2019 and January 2020, county air pollution regulators continually warned the city and its general contractor, West Coast General, about asbestos exposure, which is harmful when airborne. The repeated warnings by the regulators are considered significant because if the airflow systems were fixed, then the dust, debris, and asbestos particles disturbed during the work could be easily breathed in by others. Furthermore, Jackson wrote, “These fire safety issues were so blatant and so dangerous every contractor was concerned for public safety, so they were all coming to city management to put their concerns on the record.”
Several weeks later, Mr. Jackson was fired, which was after he voiced his safety concerns to the city of San Diego. Currently, Jackson has sought to take legal action against the city for firing him weeks after he had raised concerns about the building’s safety issues. Also, another contractor has taken legal action against the city. According to Air Metrx, an air conditioning and heating contractor, Jackson’s claims were dead on when he met with city officials during the August 1, 2019 meeting, because CEO Scott Neil Lee proclaimed the same problems the building project had to the city as well.
The City Of San Diego Ignored Warnings And Formed Completion Date
Even as those complaints were made, construction ensued, and city officials set an official deadline to place municipal workers in the renovated building around December 9, 2019. In between the time of the city deadline, the date was moved to December 16, 2019. While moving forward, around October, Scott Neil Lee, proclaimed that city management officials tried to discourage West Coast General from proceeding with independent inspections. Alternatively, the general contractor, became mindful of the city’s possible intention to blatantly not complete full environmental testing even after asbestos was found in a utility shaft upon the city’s acknowledgment.
Inherently, West Coast General, was reluctant because they claimed the city of San Diego, kept scaffolding in the way of the most contaminated area so county regulators would not see or inspect the area. Seemingly, city officials seemed to skirt around the issue and eventually met the deadline date for municipal workers to move in. Shortly after that, the Public Works Department ensured, West Coast General, the general contractor, that the site inside the building site was safe for city employees to begin to occupy.
Astoundingly, this January, less than a month after the building was cleared by public works officials to be deemed, as safe to occupy, air pollution regulators from San Diego County declared the building unsafe due to high levels of asbestos. As many people may know, exposure to asbestos is hazardous and has been known to cause or enhance conditions such as lung disease, lung cancer, and mesothelioma cancer.
Mesothelioma cancer is caused exclusively by exposure to asbestos. Asbestos becomes harmful when it is disturbed or broken apart from its solid state, whether it is humanmade or extracted from the earth. In turn, if asbestos fibers are inhaled or swallowed, the particles can become lodged in the lining of the lungs or abdomen. These particles can lie dormant in the body for years and buildup within these areas like a plaque. Over time, they could develop into onset mesothelioma cancer, which can take decades to develop.
Presently, the California high-rise building sits vacant, while employees, contractors, and involved parties are pursuing legal action against the city for exposing them to asbestos contaminants that were found by regulators to be present inside the building. On record, five known legal claims have been filed by engineers and a Public Works Department employee since January. Besides, civil engineer Marlon Perez, who also warned and wrote a letter to the city citing safety hazards at the site, filed an additional tort claim last month for “bodily injury” associated with working on the former SEMPRA building site.
In regards to claims that the city failed to conduct due diligence when purchasing the property, the spokesperson told news media that “the city worked in conjunction with active downtown developer Cisterra to perform due diligence on [remediating] the asbestos and worked with well-known architect Gensler during the space-planning phase to minimize the disruption of asbestos during construction.” Added the spokesperson, “The City assumed any tenant improvement could result in disruption of asbestos. For this reason, the City ensured the due diligence and construction floor plans developed by Gensler addressed the potential for disruption.”
In reply, by February 2019, according to the letter to the city by attorney Larry Shea, who represents civil engineer Perez, the city was aware of “substantial asbestos” contamination inside the building. But Perez and his lawyer claim the city moved ahead with occupancy plans despite that knowledge.
According to Perez, by May 2019, environmental consultants working for the city were “expressing more and more disappointment with the work site conditions.” Perez also said that in August 2019, the city supervisor in charge of the Ash Street project had erroneously designated the building as “free of asbestos and 100 percent safe for workers to enter.”
The San Diego County Air Pollution Control District, however, found otherwise and declared the building unsafe due to high levels of asbestos. Perez also claims asbestos contamination wasn’t the building’s only severe safety risk. He said he discovered “significant” fire safety issues inside the high rise.
In particular, a significant issue was the numerous openings on each floor of the building, which in the case of a fire could provide oxygen that Perez said would act as “a chimney,” and spread the fire. A faulty heating and air condition system also posed a significant fire hazard, said Perez. The mechanism that controls the opening and closing of vents had broken, Perez said, and the inability to close the vents during a fire could help the flames spread quickly.
Also read The Risk of Mesothelioma: Demolition
Newly obtained documents, combined with existing legal claims, suggest that top managers skirted around or downplayed safety risks concerning the building’s renovation. In effect, they seemed to go around regulations and the best interest of the health and well-being of the people who worked to renovate the city site. Instead, city officials progressed towards finishing the work so they could move city workers inside the building while trying to hide a toxic situation of asbestos contamination.
For example, In January, Luis Guerrero, an engineer for the real estate services firm CBRE, which was working on-site, alleged that the city had disregarded regulatory practices for asbestos containment and hid the existence of those hazardous materials from workers to keep costs down. He said he was later barred from the building. Then in early February, Marlon Perez, an assistant engineer in the Public Works Department, said in a letter that his supervisors knowingly put an unqualified person in charge of the project. Two days later, other contractors came forward to allege the city was well aware of the dangerous conditions but sent workers into the job site.
All in all, those workers exclaim that the city was “aware of the existence of the dangerous condition” inside Ash Street but still hired outside trade workers to work inside. The six workers allege that the city owes up to $10 million per person for negligence, assault, and battery resulting from asbestos contamination, and for dangerous condition of public property.
There is no denying that it can be hard to speak out into the face of authority to do the right thing. Here people like Marlon Perez and Eric Jackson needed to stand up for what is right. We are all human, and no one is perfect, but sometimes the right thing can be harder to do than to let the wrong something slide on by, no matter what the situation entails.
Something we all do not ever need to let get away from us is the fact that the harmful effects of asbestos exposure can hurt anyone and everyone in its path. If you or a loved one feel may be suffering from the detrimental effects of primary or secondary exposure to asbestos through no fault of your own, then please do not hesitate to call an experienced asbestos or mesothelioma attorney.
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