San Diego

City of San Diego Faces Fines, Penalties Over Asbestos Risks at Fire Academy

County inspectors filed a violation notice after NBC 7 Investigates revealed contamination problems and the fire department’s slow response to health risks.

This story has been updated to include a response from the San Diego Fire Department.

The city of San Diego faces possible fines and penalties for exposing firefighters to health risks at its fire academy training center.

NBC 7 Investigates revealed the potential health problems in February, after reviewing documents and talking with current and former fire department employees who shared details about the risk of asbestos exposure at the training center.

The Fire Academy is located on the site of the old Naval Training Center (NTC,) just north of the San Diego International Airport off of Harbor Drive.

Google Maps shows Buildings 71, 72, 88 and 89 where asbestos was discovered.

Those health concerns are now the target of a Notice of Violation issued by the San Diego County Air Pollution Control District (APCD).

“Medical science has established that there is no safe level to asbestos exposure, so our asbestos cases are extremely serious," said Mahiany Luther, the APCD’s chief compliance officer.

The Notice of Violation claims that air inside the decades-old training center was contaminated by “...asbestos-containing materials, including floor tile and mastic [adhesive], through the process of fire-training activities from 2001 to July 2018.”

The APCD executive said companies and government agencies are subject to fines and training requirements even if the violations have stopped.

“Even though the training is provided after-the-fact, it can prevent future violations,” Luther told NBC 7 Investigates. “If individuals are exposed to asbestos fibers, that’s a very serious matter, and there needs to be a process for that. These actions are extremely important to deter future violations."

The Fire Department contested those allegations in a four-page response sent to APCD on April 2.

To read the San Diego Fire Department's response, click here.

That letter, signed by Fire Chief Colin Stowell, notes that “over the years” SDFD has inspected the facility for asbestos and properly neutralized any problem areas.

Chief Stowell noted that the city’s Asbestos & Lead Treatment Program “generated reports that provided guidance to Fire-Rescue on the proper use of the facility, and what to do if certain conditions were found.”

The letter also says “the City respectfully disputes” APCD’s notice of violation and argues that because APCD “cannot verify when that [asbestos] debris was first deposited” at the academy, APCD’s claim that the violations started in 2001 and continued through July 2018 is “unverifiable.”

In August of 2018, according to emails obtained by NBC 7 Investigates, the San Diego Fire Department’s Cancer Awareness and Prevention Program manager submitted a memo detailing health hazards at the training facility as well as evidence that Fire Department command staff were "aware of the asbestos hazards at the [fire academy] site since at least 2002."

To read that memo, click here

Documents obtained by NBC 7 Investigates reveal the city downplayed those health risks and failed to act quickly to protect trainees and veteran firefighters.

In April of 2015, the city’s Real Estate Assets Department hired Rincon Consultants to perform a detailed environmental site assessment of the San Diego Fire Academy facilities. 

To read that assessment, click here.

That report includes clear and specific evidence of the presence of lead and asbestos in some of the fire academy buildings. Consultants found the asbestos-containing materials were present since the city purchased the property from the U.S. Navy in May 2000. 

A spokesperson for San Diego’s Fire Department previously confirmed to NBC 7 Investigates that no asbestos mediation was performed in the former Naval Training Center facilities prior to training taking place. 

In addition to the environmental site assessment report in 2015, an academy instructor resigned that same year, citing his "growing concerns about the presence of asbestos and the condition of our training facility." 

Despite that evidence, firefighter training for the city, as well as fire departments across San Diego County, continued in the facilities for three more years. 

All intensive training has stopped at the Fire Academy facilities. 

On Wednesday, May 22, a San Diego City Council Committee will discuss funding for a new training facility for the city’s police and fire department. The plans are in the early stages. 

Editor’s note: This story was updated May 23, 2019, to include the Fire Department’s response to the APCD’s violation notice, which was received the day after NBC 7’s deadline.

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