Many Portland Homes Demolished Despite Asbestos Inside

September 28, 2015

Contractors have been tearing down hundreds of Portland, Ore., homes without properly removing the asbestos inside, a practice that ignores state regulations and could put workers at risk.

Weak regulatory oversight from the Department of Environmental Quality has allowed the companies to proceed with the hazardous demolitions, according to an investigation by The Oregonian.

State regulations say licensed contractors should remove asbestos before demolishing homes, with a few exceptions, and federal regulations also require workers who could inhale the cancer-causing fibers to wear protective gear like plastic coveralls and respirators.

The Oregonian estimates that the number of asbestos-containing homes that have been destroyed since 2002 numbers in the thousands; the state puts the number at about 650 Oregon homes annually.

Demolitions are far from a rare event in Portland these days – the number of demolition permits issued in 2014 was higher than at any other time in the past decade. Developers are razing hundreds of old houses likely to contain asbestos amid an infill boom.

And for the last three years, the only asbestos inspector position in the region that includes Portland has sat empty.

Southeast Portland resident Heather Dickinson recalls watching last year as a backhoe tore into the house next door, sending a up plume of grayish-brown dust that spread everywhere. At the time, she didn’t know that hundreds of square feet of asbestos-laden flooring and insulation were inside.

“The only reason they got caught in this situation was because a neighbor made a phone call,” said Dickinson, who photographed the demolition. Even after the state establishes that contractors have torn down a house with asbestos inside, neither DEQ nor Oregon’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration shares the potential health risks with every employee or neighbor who may have inhaled the asbestos.

“One would like to think that we’re all OK,” Dickinson said of her family, including 6- and 8-year-old sons. “But you know, who knows?”

The cancerous material was popular in the 20th century, thanks to its durability and fire resistance. It’s often found in tiles, vinyl flooring, ceilings, cement shingles and pipe insulation of homes built before the 1970s.

Experts and regulators estimate that 80 to 90 percent of demolished houses have the material. Contractors only reported removing asbestos in 33 percent of homes demolished in Portland area from 2011 to 2014, according to city and state data.

Portland recently started asking contractors to certify asbestos removal, but the city says it has no authority to enforce that.

The Department of Environmental Quality has known for years that its rules aren’t strong enough to keep people safe during demolitions, but it declined to strengthen the rules following construction industry complaints in 2002.

“It’s appalling. Most people think of DEQ, they think of it as a green organization,” said Kimberly Koehler, an activist with the Eastmoreland Neighborhood Association. “But as a matter of fact they’re not looking out for our interests.”

To the north, however, Washington agencies have maintained substantially stricter rules for almost two decades. Southwest Washington requires 10 days’ notice before a house demolition and documentary proof that contractors have looked for asbestos beforehand.

In a written statement, the DEQ said it’s up to building owners to remove the asbestos before demolition. Spokesman Dick Pedersen said the department declined to be interviewed.

In its statement, DEQ said it plans to “evaluate and update” its asbestos rules next year.

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