Detroit’s demolition program and asbestos: What you need to know
Detroit Free Press
LANSING — The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality did not properly monitor building demolitions in which hazardous asbestos could be released to the air or inspect landfills to make sure removed asbestos was disposed of safely, the state auditor general said in a report released today.
In response, the DEQ promised improvements but cited low staffing levels. The auditor general observed that unlike other similar agencies, the DEQ doesn’t charge property owners fees for its inspections and should set up a fee structure to help pay for the work it does.
The audit comes as a Free Press investigation uncovered significant risk from asbestos from home demolitions in Detroit. The paper reported Aug. 6 that some contractors in Detroit were under so much pressure to knock down thousands of abandoned properties that they cut corners, mishandling deadly asbestos at dozens of sites. And, in two cases, inspectors appeared to falsify asbestos inspection reports.
Airborne asbestos can cause a range of health problems, including cancer.
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Michigan Auditor General Doug Ringler said in the report released today that the DEQ’s air quality division could not show that it inspected 41, or 87%, of the 47 landfills that can receive asbestos waste, the auditor found.
The DEQ “could not demonstrate that they conducted any inspections at the 41 landfills,” despite the fact the landfills “received asbestos-containing materials for 10,655 notifications of intent to demolish,” or renovate, the report said.
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The agency “informed us that current inspector staffing levels and site inspection priorities and complaint responses contributed to the lack of completion of landfill inspections or documentation of completed landfill inspections,” the report said.
The auditor also found that the DEQ failed to follow up properly when inspectors found workplace violations that might result in the release of asbestos to the air.
The auditor reviewed 35 violation notices issued to 74 liable parties and found that in 15%, or 20%, of those cases, the DEQ did not ensure that it received a response by the due date. In 87% of the cases where no response was received by the due date, the DEQ did not follow up after the due date to obtain the required response, the report said.
The DEQ did not document the date it received a response for 14 of the 59 responses received. Eight of those responses were received between eight and 36 days past the due date, the report said.
The agency “informed us that the high volume of notifications impacted the ability of its inspectors to follow up on late responses,” the report said.
“Instead, staff prioritized their work and focused on preventing asbestos violations by conducting field inspections and responding to complaints.”
The DEQ agreed with the auditor’s recommendations and said it will develop a new policy and procedure for proper documentation by Jan. 1.
“Due to the increasing efforts to address blighted communities the Air Quality Division has seen a tenfold increase in notifications and demo work, which in turn has resulted in inconsistent documentation of our work,” DEQ spokeswoman Melanie Brown said Wednesday.
Questioned whether the DEQ plotted to start charging fees for permits, Brown said “no decisions have yet been made,” but “the department is considering all potential funding sources in a recommendation for the next budget cycle.”
The unit has four full-time employees and one part-time employee, and the DEQ spent about $418,000 on asbestos program activities in 2017, the report said.
In 2016, the air quality division received 17,188 notifications and completed 1,404 inspections, the report said. The DEQ would need to complete close to 2,600 inspections to meet its goal of inspecting 15% of the notifications received.
The auditor also found the DEQ did not properly document inspection reports for 10% of the 70 randomly selected inspections and for 8% of 124 ordered demolition inspections. The agency also didn’t properly complete reports for 6% of the ordered demolition inspections, the auditor found. For example, three reports stated only: “I arrived.”
The auditor general examined the DEQ’s air quality division technical programs unit, which administers national standards for hazardous air pollutants and is tasked with minimizing risks from airborne asbestos when homes and other buildings are demolished.
Building owners or operators are required to say the DEQ of all demolitions or renovations where the amount of regulated asbestos-containing material meets or exceeds national thresholds. The DEQ then is tasked to make sure the asbestos removal and disposal meets requirements to assure safety.
The auditor noted that the division responded to 98% of complaints within seven days of receiving them, but pointed out several other deficiencies.
The auditor noted that while Michigan charges nothing, Ohio and Illinois charge $75 and $150 respectively, for each notification received. Other states have fees based on the size of the area to be inspected.
“Without assessing fees,” the agency “is limited in the number of asbestos inspections that it can conduct. its ability to conduct inspections in all areas of the state, and its ability to conduct landfill inspections,” the report said.
In Michigan, two inspectors are responsible for metro Detroit, one for the remainder of the Lower Peninsula, and one-quarter of one inspector is responsible for the Upper Peninsula.
Contact Paul Egan: 517-372-8660 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @paulegan4.
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