Whistleblower Claims City Ignored Warnings About Asbestos and Fire Safety at Downtown High Rise

The complaint comes on the heels of resignation from a top official in charge of managing the renovation of the former Sempra Energy building at 101 Ash St.

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A city of San Diego engineer claims his supervisors ignored his warnings about asbestos contamination and fire dangers at a city-owned downtown high rise on Ash Street.

Attorneys for civil engineer Marlon Perez detailed the warnings in a Feb. 4, 2020, letter to the San Diego City Attorney’s Office, obtained Tuesday by NBC 7 Investigates.

In the letter, Perez claims a supervisor in the Public Works Department knowingly put an unqualified person in charge of renovating 101 Ash St. The result, according to Perez, put more than one thousand city workers in danger, not only from high levels of asbestos contamination, but fire hazards inside the building that Perez warned were “life threatening.”

NBC 7's Monica Dean breaks down the claims made by the whistleblower.

Perez’s whistleblower complaint is the latest in a string of controversies surrounding the purchase of the former Sempra Energy building in downtown San Diego, including the Feb. 14 resignation of Assistant Chief Operating Officer Ronald Villa, who handled the acquisition and renovation of 101 Ash St., as first reported by Voice of San Diego.

The city acquired the building on Jan. 3, 2017, in a 20-year lease-to-own agreement. The total cost of the building was estimated to be just under $202 million.

According to the lease, the city acquired the building on an “as is” basis. In a March 2016 inspection report, obtained by NBC 7 Investigates, inspectors from Advantage Environmental Consultants found the building and heating and air conditioning unit were in good condition and estimated that the building needed just $10,000 in routine maintenance.

But the additional and unexpected cost of unexpected renovation and remodeling caused the price tag to balloon. Taxpayers have also footed the bill for lease payments on other buildings that house city workers who can’t occupy the Ash Street building.

Photo of pipes found inside 101 Ash Street laden with asbestos

Those renovations began in August 2018, when city leaders decided to move forward with large-scale renovations to the building and its HVAC system.

By February 2019, according to the letter to the city by attorney Larry Shea, who represents civil engineer Perez, the city was aware of “substantial asbestos” contamination inside the building. But Perez and his lawyer claim the city moved ahead with occupancy plans despite that knowledge. 

According to Perez, by May 2019, environmental consultants working for the city were “expressing more and more disappointment with the work site conditions.”

Perez also said that in August 2019, the city supervisor in charge of the Ash Street project had erroneously designated the building as “free of asbestos and 100 percent safe for workers to enter.”

Photo of pipes found inside 101 Ash Street

The San Diego County Air Pollution Control District, however, found otherwise, and declared the building unsafe due to high levels of asbestos. 

Perez also claims asbestos contamination wasn’t the building’s only serious safety risk.

He said he discovered “significant” fire safety issues inside the highrise. One issue was the numerous openings on each floor of the building, which in the case of a fire could provide oxygen that Perez said would act as “a chimney,” and spread the fire.

A faulty heating and air condition system also posed a significant fire hazard, said Perez. The mechanism that controls the opening and closing of vents had broken, Perez said, and the inability to close the vents during a fire could help the flames spread quickly.

“This is an obvious life safety issue if not rectified,” reads the February 4 whistleblower complaint. 

Both (men) took the risk to their lives, to their families, to stand up and tell the truth to everybody and take the personal risk. That’s a big deal.

Larry Shea- Attorney for Whistleblowers

Perez said the issues were not rectified and instead department leaders retaliated against him for stating his concerns. 

Attorney Larry Shea, who represents Perez and another whistleblower, told NBC 7 Investigates that “both (men) took the risk to their lives, to their families, to stand up and tell the truth to everybody and take the personal risk. That’s a big deal." 

To hear more from Attorney Lawrence Shea on why his clients came forward, watch the video below.

Attorney Lawrence Shea discusses the reasons why his clients came forward to share their concerns surrounding asbestos in a city-owned downtown high rise.

The second whistleblower, Jose Luis Guerrero, told NBC 7 Investigates, “What’s wrong with the system is that they don’t care about any of the employees. They care about the deadline and about the budget. They don’t care about the employees’ health.”

Attorney Shea’s February 4 letter was addressed to City Attorney Mara Elliott, whose office has not responded to a request for comment on the allegations. Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s office confirmed that it is aware of Shea’s letter. 

“The City has received a letter submitted by Mr. Perez’s attorney and is taking steps to understand the various allegations,” a mayoral spokesperson said by email.

The City has received a letter submitted by Mr. Perez’s attorney and is taking steps to understand the various allegations

Spokesperson - Mayor Kevin Faulconer's Office

The city has been accused of failing to protect employees from asbestos contamination before.

As first reported by NBC 7, firefighter trainees have long complained about potential exposure at the former firefighter training academy on Harbor Island.

To read more about that investigation, click here.

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