Volume 21, Number 12 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | August 1 - 7, 2008
Downtown Express photo by Jefferson Siegel
Neighbors were surprised to see packages with asbestos being loaded outside of Fiterman Hall last week after officials had suggested all hazardous materials would be loaded in the building. Airtek Environmental Corp., which is decontaminating the building, took responsibility for providing incorrect information, but said the work poses no danger to the public because the packages are sealed inside the building.
Outside asbestos work prompts surprise & explanation
By Julie Shapiro
When Paul Stein walked past Fiterman Hall last Thursday night, he noticed something odd.
Along W. Broadway, workers with respirators were loading plastic-wrapped boxes from Fiterman Hall into a trailer. The trailer was marked: DANGER ASBESTOS.
“It’s alarming to see people with their faces covered with…respirators,” said Stein, health and safety chairperson of the New York State Public Employees Federation. “It’s a scary thing to see right on your street.”
Fiterman Hall, a City University of New York classroom building, was damaged on 9/11 when 7 W.T.C. collapsed into it. The building is currently being decontaminated so it can be safely demolished.
The community was surprised to see respirator-wearing workers along a public street, because they expected all hazardous materials to be loaded inside the building. At public presentations, representatives of Airtek Environmental Corp., the company charged with decontaminating Fiterman, touted the internal loading dock as providing an extra layer of protection to the public, Stein and others said.
“None of us remember any emphasis on contaminated materials being loaded out on the street,” said Kimberly Flynn, head of 9/11 Environmental Action. Rather, Lewis emphasized the internal loading dock, and “We thought, ‘Oh, that’s really great, we don’t need to worry about any release happening out in the community,’” Flynn said.
One of the “frequently asked questions” on Fiterman Hall’s Web site also refers exclusively to the internal loading dock.
Benn Lewis, vice president of Airtek, said he included the W. Broadway loading dock on maps of the construction site he showed the community, and he said he did not mean to imply that the contractor would only use the internal loading dock. He took responsibility for the misleading information online and said he would fix it.
Workers have been using the W. Broadway loading dock for several months, Lewis said, both during the day and at night, so what Stein and Flynn witnessed last week was not out of the ordinary. The plan Airtek submitted to the government environmental regulators includes both the W. Broadway and internal loading docks.
Under that plan, workers inside the building pack boxes full of contaminated materials, double-wrap the boxes in plastic and clean them. Then the workers bring the boxes outside and load them into trailers along W. Broadway. State law requires the workers carrying the boxes to wear respirators as a precaution, but Lewis said the work poses no risk to pedestrians. The workers who move the boxes into the trailers do not work in contaminated areas inside the building, Lewis said. Airtek also continually monitors the air at and around the site.
Part of the reason workers are using the W. Broadway loading dock is that the internal one isn’t open yet. Before building it, the contractor had to clear the building’s first floor of contaminated material, Lewis said. It will open within several weeks.
Once the internal loading dock is ready, Stein and Flynn want workers to stop using the W. Broadway dock. If an accident breaches a box of contaminated material, they would prefer for that to happen in a contained area.
“Ideally, this shouldn’t be happening out in the open on the street,” Flynn said.
However, Lewis said workers would continue using the W. Broadway loading dock. He expects the majority of contaminated material to be loaded at the internal dock, because it is more efficient, but sometimes the internal dock will be full and it will make more sense to use the one on W. Broadway, he said.
Lewis thought about building an 8-foot fence around the work site, shielding the respirator-wearing workers from public view, but he sees no reason to spend the money since there is nothing to cover up. Lewis said he feels safe wearing street clothes and no respirator while watching workers load boxes into the trailers.
Now that Airtek has the first floor of Fiterman cleaned, workers are decontaminating the rest of the building. They start by removing non-fixed items like chairs and desks, and then they remove walls, ducts and light fixtures. Once they strip each floor of any potentially contaminated material, they clean the bare-bones structure that’s left. The top six floors of the 15-story building are nearly cleared but still have to be carefully vacuumed and wiped down.
Lewis is not sure when decontamination could be complete. Previous estimates put the completion at September or October. The building would then be demolished, which would take another four to six months.
CUNY hopes to build a new classroom building for the Borough of Manhattan Community College on the site, but CUNY needs more money from the city to move forward. The city did not allocate the money to the project for fiscal year 2009, so the new building could be in jeopardy, but the decontamination and demolition will go forward regardless.