Iowa Seeks Asbestos Penalties for Equitable Developer

February 4, 2008

The state may fine a company remodeling a downtown Des Moines, Iowa landmark after asbestos was found on many floors of the building.

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources, following an anonymous tip, found the asbestos in insulation debris scattered around the building, including public areas, said DNR lawyer Kelli Book.

“This gave us great concern,” Book said. “The exposure to the public over 14 months could have been considerable.”

Bob Knapp and his companies, listed on state documents as Equitable LP and the Equitable Condo, have spent about the last year and a half converting the upper floors of the 19-story Equitable Building, built in 1923, into dozens of luxury condos. The work continues.

The DNR is concerned that an unknown number of condominium shoppers and construction workers were exposed to cancer-causing asbestos.

“Our larger concern is that we found dry asbestos around the entire building. The inspector found asbestos debris and dust right in the area of the model” condo unit.

If inhaled, asbestos can cause cancer and lung ailments including asbestosis, which scars the lungs and can be fatal, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Demolition workers are required to keep the material so no one breathes the fibers. The material once was used widely in floor and ceiling tiles and pipe insulation.

Asbestos-related illnesses often don’t appear for 10 to 40 years, the National Cancer Institute has said.

Longer exposures put people at a bigger risk of illness, but they aren’t the only ones who should be concerned, the institute said on its Web site.

“Although it is clear that health risks from asbestos exposure increase with heavier exposure and longer exposure time, investigators have found asbestos-related diseases in individuals with only brief exposures,” the institute reported.

Knapp downplayed the concerns, saying the asbestos levels were small.

“It’s goofy,” Knapp said. “These old buildings hardly had anything in them. It’s just minute.”

The DNR’s samples of ceiling, floor and pipe insulation debris turned up asbestos concentrations ranging from 2 percent to 35 percent.

This isn’t the first time Knapp has been in trouble over asbestos regulations. The state cited him in 2000 for failing to inspect another old building before he converted it into the Suites of 800 Locust hotel. He was not fined in that case.

Construction at the Equitable Building began 14 months before the state was alerted to the asbestos trouble.

Book said Knapp’s company hired an asbestos-removal company, but has not submitted a required report showing the work was completed properly.

Equitable violated a handful of federal asbestos regulations enforced by the state, Book said.

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources in March will ask the Iowa Environmental Protection Commission to refer the case to the state attorney general’s office in hopes of getting a fine larger than the $10,000 maximum the DNR can assess, Book said. The commission was supposed to consider the case this month, but Knapp’s team asked for the delay.

Typically, the attorney general’s office takes cases that the DNR considers most egregious. Fines can rise into six figures when the attorney general gets involved.

The state issues 125 notices of violation a year, many of them paperwork offenses for not notifying the state of a remodeling project, said Brian Hutchins of the DNR’s air-quality staff. Those notices typically demand action but don’t assess fines. A half-dozen cases a year draw more elaborate orders and possibly fines.

The state ordered the project stopped in September so that asbestos could be removed by a certified contractor.

Knapp ordered his crew out of the building and hired an asbestos-removal firm, but subcontractors continued to work, said Book.

In December, on a follow-up inspection, DNR investigators found Knapp’s company hadn’t completed the inspection report ordered in September.

The state hygienic laboratory tested five samples taken from the basement, eighth floor and 19th floor on Sept. 11, and one had asbestos. The next day, the state took 14 more samples, from the eighth through 13th floors; all but four had asbestos.

The investigation started in September after an anonymous tipster sent a handwritten note to Polk County health officials, who alerted the DNR.

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