In February 2019, NBC7 Investigates obtained internal documents from the San Diego Fire Department that showed the city delayed fixing a known asbestos problem at the fire academy. The documents showed that over the course of a decade, thousands of firefighters were exposed to asbestos and lead in the floors, walls and ceilings.
NBC 7 has now confirmed that just one day after the report, the county’s Air Pollution Control District (ACPD) started its own investigation into the exposure. An ACPD investigation report obtained by a public records request reads, in part, “A district employee watched the broadcast and notified Air Pollution Control District management the following day in the afternoon. The report aired by NBC alleged that the city minimized and failed to disclose the dangers of asbestos and lead present in the training facility buildings. The building was a naval building, converted to the fire training facility 20 years ago.”
The APCD investigation confirmed hazardous asbestos levels were present in the buildings since the city purchased them. The APCD said that, despite many warnings over the years, the city did not address the issue. The investigation also found at least 1,000 firefighter trainees were exposed, as well as children who used the buildings for camps.
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The APCD sent a settlement offer letter to the city in August 2019. It shows the city could face fines ranging from $10,000 to $500,000 a day for 160 days, which could add up to more than $80 million. The largest fine would only apply if the city is found to have acted recklessly. According to the settlement letter, the city has disputed many of the APCDs findings.
Neither the fire department nor the city attorney’s office would comment on the APCD's findings and settlement letter but did confirm the claim has not been resolved.
The city has previously defended itself. A representative told NBC 7 in 2019 that every time an asbestos-related report was generated, it was acted upon immediately.
However, APCD found that was not the case. Its investigators found the city had held a confidential meeting with the fire chiefs and risk management in 2018, during which the city acknowledged the problems and that it could face fines from OSHA and the APCD.
The spokeswoman for the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department, Mónica Muñoz, told NBC 7 Investigates that the site is still used for training.
“SDFD uses the buildings at NTC for training," Muñoz wrote. "Buildings 88 and 89 each have three floors. The floors that underwent mitigation by the city in 2019 are used by the department. The floors that were not mitigated are locked and signage is posted that no entry is allowed.”
“San Diego City Firefighters are terribly disappointed by the historic mishandling of asbestos at NTC as it unnecessarily exposed not only our personnel but many people outside our ranks to carcinogens," Jesse Conner, president of San Diego City Firefighters IAFF Local 145, told NBC 7 Investigates on Monday. "We're committed to continuing to work with the city to notify those exposed, provide treatment for any of our members who may become sick as a result and implement protections to ensure something like this never happens again.”
Conner continued: “Firefighters no longer train in the buildings that still contain asbestos. Some targeted mitigation efforts have occurred, and new training props have been built as an interim solution to continuing training new firefighters until the city decides on a more permanent solution. That land is slated for redevelopment yet finding (or more appropriately, funding) a replacement training facility is a challenge.”