Updated: Feb 22
Editor's Note: The Allegheny County Health Department on Feb. 21 filed a motion to dismiss the appeal. You can read that document here.
A quartet of companies has appealed a $754,600 civil penalty assessed by the Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD) late last year for asbestos-abatement violations alleged to have occurred during a 2019 building renovation project involving 49 residences across Pittsburgh’s North Side neighborhood.
The companies - Mistick Construction, Northside Properties Residence II, Northside Associates, and Tom Mistick and Sons - in their Jan. 13 appeal argue that the properties for which they were assessed penalties are not subject to Allegheny County’s asbestos abatement regulations and that ACHD improperly calculated the civil penalty.
The appeal asks for the Allegheny County Health Department hearing officer to reject the enforcement order outright or reduce the civil penalty to no more than $12,000.
But there’s a lot more to this story - and Allegheny County’s asbestos issue generally - so let’s take a step back and see how this whole thing started (and talk more about why abatement cases like this are concerning to GASP).
ACHD’s Enforcement Order
In May 2019, the companies were in the midst of the second of a multi-phase renovation project that “concerned no fewer than 49 individual properties located in the North Side.”
Acting on a citizen complaint, ACHD investigated the project and determined that renovations had taken place at the residences without first conducting a thorough inspection to determine the presence of asbestos (the “asbestos survey” rule). ACHD issued stop-work orders on June 11, 2019.
A month later, ACHD and the companies entered into a consent agreement that established a process for lifting the stop-work orders on a structure-by-structure basis. Each individual property was to be tested for the presence of asbestos, and, where necessary, cleaned and cleared by final inspections conducted by ACHD inspectors.
On August 21, 2019, ACHD cleared the last structures that were subject to the stop-work orders, having discovered the presence of asbestos in renovation dust and debris in six of the 49 structures.
Ultimately, ACHD’s Dec. 22 order imposed $754,600 in penalties against the companies for:
The companies appealing this fine admitted “a trace of asbestos was detected” in six residences but raised numerous issues with ACHD’s approach to calculating the fine.
No matter how this case turns out, GASP is deeply concerned that these cases keep happening. The rules have changed over the years but it’s worth pointing out asbestos was one of the first hazardous air pollutants regulated under the Clean Air Act, with regulations covering demolition and renovation established in 1973.
How Asbestos Harms Your Health
When asbestos is left undisturbed it does not pose a health risk but during renovation or demolition, it’s common for old, brittle asbestos products to release tiny fibers that become airborne. These tasteless, odorless fibers can remain suspended in the air and enter your lungs when you inhale. Once inhaled, asbestos stays there forever because its chemistry keeps it from breaking down in the body.
Exposure to airborne asbestos fibers can cause serious health issues including asbestosis, lung cancer, mesothelioma, and pleural disease. And there is no safe minimum level of exposure to asbestos. The World Health Organization estimates that 100,000 people die from asbestos exposure each year. It can take 20-40 years for some of these diseases to manifest, so we are currently seeing the results of exposures from decades ago.
Asbestos exposure is the only known cause of mesothelioma and health officials say the mortality rate for mesothelioma in Allegheny County is “significantly higher” than that of both Pennsylvania and the nation.
Unfortunately, asbestos-containing material (also known as ACM) was used in residential and commercial settings for decades, even after the carcinogenic effects of this fiber became apparent in humans. It’s commonly found in tile flooring, shingles, cement floors, insulation, and fireplace flues. In the 1980s, asbestos was partially banned in the United States in new building materials but some products are still permitted to use small amounts of asbestos.
About the Allegheny County Air Pollution Regs Meant to Protect Us
Allegheny County Health Department rules require an asbestos survey - a thorough inspection to determine the presence of asbestos - for all renovation and demolition projects. Demolition or renovation activities performed for a private homeowner of a residential structure with four or fewer dwelling units are exempt from the asbestos regulations, but not if the structures are part of a larger installation or project.
Depending on the quantity of ACM identified, proper notification, specific work practices, and proper disposal of asbestos-containing material are required.
If less than 160 square feet of ACM is identified in the facility, a properly completed notification must be submitted 10 days before demolition or renovation activity begins. If the amount of ACM is 160 square feet or more, a properly completed permit application must be submitted with appropriate payment at least 10 working days before the asbestos abatement begins.
A licensed asbestos contractor must remove all ACM identified as described in the permit. Demolition or renovation activities may proceed once ACHD has performed a final clearance inspection.
ACHD produced a very informative fact sheet about the requirements available online here.
Why GASP Continues to Sound The Alarm Over Asbestos
GASP remains concerned about the volume - and severity - of asbestos-abatement enforcement cases in Allegheny County.
We already know Allegheny County is a hotspot for asbestos exposure, that our area is ripe with aging infrastructure and buildings, and that revitalization efforts in some of our most vulnerable environmental justice communities involve demolition and rehabilitation of blighted properties.
“We hope we can work with the Allegheny County Health Department to help educate the public about the rules and regulations covering asbestos,” GASP Executive Director Patrick Campbell said. “We also hope ACHD will consider forming a subcommittee to examine the current processes associated with asbestos abatement permitting to determine what steps can be taken to improve them and ensure increased compliance.”
“We know this is a huge issue - the Air Quality Program has told us its downright overwhelming. We think it’s time ACHD tries addressing it differently, and GASP is committed to helping any way we can.”
In the meantime, GASP is crafting educational content for residents and contractors to better understand and access information related to asbestos abatement in Allegheny County. Stay tuned.