Kurtis Bennett was on a train, passing through Norway, but his mind was back in San Diego with his fellow firefighters. It was September 7, 2018, and three weeks earlier, while leading the San Diego Fire Department’s Cancer Prevention Program, Bennett had notified his supervisors that firefighter trainees were possibly exposed to hazardous levels of asbestos for years.
Bennett’s emails, as well as hundreds of documents obtained by NBC 7 Investigates show the city was repeatedly warned and informed about the health risks.
“I am gravely concerned that the [San Diego Fire Department] is failing the workforce,” Bennett wrote from the train.
Bennett, as well as top department officials, declined to comment for this story.
The facility west of the San Diego International Airport served as a real-life fire training ground for hundreds of firefighters across San Diego County and throughout the country.
Bennett and others in the fire department feared that the fires and destruction involved in the training exercises could send dangerous asbestos fibers and dust into the air and into the lungs of those training inside.
NBC 7 first reported on the potential health risks at the San Diego Fire Academy in February after obtaining a memo Bennett had sent his supervisors about the asbestos problem.
New records now show the extent of the city’s neglect and a long, documented history of contamination.
The city had been notified of the potential health threat as early as August of 1997 when it purchased the former Naval Training Center (NTC) property from the U.S. Navy.
Work request forms and inspection reports obtained by NBC 7 show city employees with the Asbestos and Lead Management Program (ALMP) inspected the fire academy at least seven times from 2002 to 2018. On each visit, inspectors documented the presence of asbestos but failed to conduct any substantial removal or clean-up.
Scroll through the timeline below for a history of the Fire Academy contamination warnings and inspections.
If the timeline does not appear below, click here.
Bennett was not the only person to sound the alarm over potential health hazards from contamination of the facilities along Harbor Drive.
In 2002, the San Diego County Department of Environmental Health received a complaint alleging asbestos-risks to firefighters training in the facilities. In response, the county launched its own investigation, according to a report obtained by NBC 7.
In it, the County advised the fire department should use a “state-certified asbestos contractor” to remove all floor tiles containing the hazardous materials. More than five months later, a city ALMP report confirms that only some, not all, of the asbestos was removed.
In 2015, the fire department received more warnings.
A Fire Academy Instructor requested reassignment in February of 2015 due to his concerns over asbestos exposure. His request was approved.
Two months later, in April of 2015, fire department and city employees reported the presence of asbestos in several Fire Academy buildings during an environmental assessment of the site. The city was told the asbestos would likely reduce the property value.
That same month, ALMP employees were called out to a Fire Academy building after floor tiles containing asbestos were, according to inspectors, “severely damaged” during a training exercise.
Inspectors determined a floor of the building “should not be occupied.” Despite their warnings, firefighters tell NBC 7 training continued.
DANGERS OF ASBESTOS CONTAMINATION
“The longer the person’s exposure, the greater the risk,” attorney and asbestos liability expert Frederick Schenk told NBC 7 Investigates in February.
Schenk is a veteran civil litigator who has represented thousands of asbestos victims. He said anyone exposed to airborne asbestos particles is at increased risk for asbestosis, lung cancer, and mesothelioma, a cancer of the lining of the lungs.
When asbestos is discovered in the ceiling, floors, or walls of most workplaces, experts generally advise that the safest option is to leave the material undisturbed.
But the Fire Academy training facilities are not a “normal” workplace in that firefighters and trainees would routinely break down walls, crack and smash floor-tiles, or crawl through tight spaces during live-fire training exercises. Schenk told NBC 7 such activities could potentially send asbestos-laden fibers into the air and into the lungs of those present.
The risks of possible exposure prompted Bennett, the department’s Cancer Prevention Officer, to submit his memo to top fire department officials on August 14, 2018.
“Every SDFD firefighter for the previous two decades has spent literally hundreds of hours training in the buildings at [the Fire Academy],” Bennett wrote. “Employee concerns about environmental safety at [the Fire Academy] were not addressed properly.”
NBC 7 Investigates made repeated requests to interview Fire Department Chief Colin Stowell about the asbestos concerns. The city was also asked about what role inspectors have for the Asbestos and Lead Management Program when it comes to restricting access to work environments where health risks have been identified. Those questions also went unanswered.
A city spokesperson would only say, "The City of San Diego prioritizes the health and safety of our employees. We will continue to take appropriate action to ensure work environments are safe."
Bennett’s memo prompted immediate action by the city and triggered an ongoing investigation by the San Diego County’s Air Pollution Control District.
Bennett’s warnings also resulted in policy changes at the Harbor Drive training facility.
The fire department stopped training at the facility and restricted civilian and firefighter access into the buildings.
In September 2018, Assistant Fire Chief Kevin Ester requested more than $200,000 in emergency Capital Improvement Funds to remove the asbestos-containing materials from the facilities, according to emails reviewed by NBC 7.
This past February, the department abated more than 33,000 square feet of asbestos from the facility.
Signs on the doors are now posted, warning employees of potential health risks.