Records show the city of San Diego moved employees into a building downtown with multiple documented asbestos violations discovered by the county’s Air Pollution Control District in August 2019.
The ACPD uncovered more asbestos nearly every week at the building, located at 101 Ash Street, in the following four months after the initial discovery, according to records obtained by NBC 7. Despite those findings, the city moved 1,100 workers into the Ash Street building in December.
One violation recorded in August stated, "Specifically, visible emissions were found on various floors inside the building that were exposed to the outside air."
“We were really surprised to see that the county pretty much confirmed our worst fears,” lawyer Michael Aguirre said.
Aguirre is one of the lawyers representing more than three dozen city workers suing the city of San Diego for asbestos exposure in another building -- the Executive Complex located at 1010 Second Ave. That lawsuit was filed after an NBC 7 investigation last year found the city exposed hundreds of workers to asbestos.
"It seems that the city is cutting corners on the health and safety of its workers,” said Aguirre in response to the newest asbestos findings in the Ash Street building.
“The city is not showing good judgement. They’re sacrificing the safety and welfare of their workers because they don’t want to go through the inconvenience of finding alternatives. They basically played Russian Roulette with the workers and had them just move in and hope for the best," he added.
Aguirre said he knows some city employees are afraid of the health implications of going to work.
“There is a tremendous fear of contracting cancer,” Aguirre said. “There are city workers and they are afraid, they’re afraid to come forward.”
The county said the asbestos violations have since been “corrected.” The most recent violation documented by the APCD was dated Dec. 26, 2019 – nearly two weeks after the city moved workers into the building.
Aguirre said the decision to move hundreds of city employees into the Ash Street building before the violations were corrected should prompt action from the city council and the mayor’s office.
“I was disappointed,” he said. “I think it’s time for the city council and the mayor to step in. I think the mayor has to step forward and exhibit some real leadership.”
This is not the news headline the city wanted on Monday -- the same day the Ash Street building opened its doors to the public.
The asbestos violations come after the city spent $30 million renovating the building, formerly Sempra Energy headquarters. That’s on top of the $18,000 the city pays to lease the space every day, even on the days it stood empty.
The deputy chief operating officer for the city, Johnnie Perkins, headed up the renovation project at the Ash Street building.
“The city’s first priority is safety -- first, second and always,” Perkins told NBC 7.
Perkins said asbestos is only dangerous when it is airborne, and that more than 232 air sample tests taken by the city show the air quality is well below EPA and California OSHA standards for asbestos fibers.
“We moved our staff in because visible debris on the ground in and of itself is not hazardous,” Perkins said.
He also said the city notified its employees of the asbestos violations in a letter and by posting the letter on the glass doors near the entrance of the building.
Perkins works out of City Hall, not the Ash Street Building. That said, he said he spends a lot of time in the Ash Street building and feels comfortable doing so.
In an on-camera interview, NBC 7 asked him several times if the building was safe – a yes or no question – but Perkins defaulted to repeating the same message point, almost word for word, about the city’s air quality samples meeting state and federal safety standards.
Perkins would not comment on the Executive Complex lawsuit. But a spokesperson for the mayor’s office, Christina Chadwick, sent NBC 7 the following statement highlighting differences between that case and the Ash Street building:
As with all City facilities, the City is committed to ensuring a safe environment for employees and the public. We take any situation involving any potentially harmful material seriously.
In the case of Executive Complex, the City of San Diego was the tenant and leased office space from a third party or landlord. This third-party controlled all activity within the building, including tenant improvements and the City did not control the construction. It is the responsibility of the third party building owner to ensure the property is safe for occupants. The City confirmed with the landlord on a number of occasions and in writing the air quality in the building met all CAL OSHA standards and therefore was safe for employees. Once the City received confirmation there was, in fact, an issue with asbestos-containing material, City leaders took swift action to vacate the property and move employees (more than 500+) to alternate workspaces throughout downtown and the city. The City of San Diego is now cross-suing over this matter.
This situation differs greatly from 101 Ash. In this case, the City of San Diego is responsible for all construction activities within the building including tenant improvements and any necessary abatement of harmful materials. This is why proactive and precautionary steps have been taken to monitor and test for airborne materials. We have conducted more than 230+ air quality control tests since August. All of them have confirmed the air quality is safe and the environment is suitable for workers.