San Diego

Lawsuit Claims San Diego Fire Department Employees Exposed to Asbestos

This is the first legal action to accuse the city of endangering worker’s health at the Fire Academy since NBC 7 Investigates documented the asbestos problem in February.

A proposed class-action lawsuit alleges the city of San Diego put firefighters and other fire department employees at risk for asbestos-related disease by transferring them to work stations at the city’s Fire Training Academy.

This is the first legal action to accuse the city of endangering worker’s health at the Fire Academy since NBC 7 Investigates documented the asbestos problem in February

“The city took its workers, the people who serve the public, and put them in harm’s way, knowing there was asbestos exposure,” said attorney Maria Severson, who filed the complaint against the city on June 21.

The bulk of Severson’s 28-page lawsuit, filed with co-counsel Michael Aguirre, targets the city’s alleged negligence in exposing more than 500 employees to toxic materials inside a downtown office building. News of the lawsuit was first reported by the San Diego Union-Tribune

NBC 7 Investigates reporter Mari Payton explains why concerns over asbestos exposure for San Diego Fire-Rescue firefighters went ignored.

According to the complaint, city officials knew that the former Executive Complex building, located at 1010 Second Avenue, contained asbestos and other “toxic materials” when they signed a lease in early 2017. Months later, the building’s owners began construction, but for the seven months that followed, the city ignored complaints from employees who said renovations to the downtown high-rise were making them sick, according to the lawsuit. 

"Shortly after construction began, city employees began to experience the effects of various air quality problems with the building’s construction, including a dramatic decline in air quality and widespread dust throughout their work areas," the complaint said.

Employees suffered coughing fits, itchy and burning throats, and other lung issues as a result. The claim said the exposure led to, "serious, genuine and reasonable fear of toxin-related cancer and associated respiratory conditions."

The complaint alleges the city decided its employees' health and safety was not worth the cost of breaking the lease. The lawsuit specifically calls out Ronald Villa, the city's Assistant Chief Operating Officer, for attempting to cover up the extent of the exposure.

According to the lawsuit, the county of San Diego's Air Pollution Control District inspected the building and found measurable amounts of asbestos within the building that could present a threat to occupants.

At that point, the city relocated its employees.

But the attorneys claim that relocation effort did not solve the problem for a handful of San Diego Fire-Rescue employees, who were moved to San Diego’s Fire Academy Building 89, located in the old Naval Training Center (NTC).

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

“The city was well-aware of the asbestos issues at NTC,” the lawsuit alleges. “City employees relocated to NTC faced the same types of conditions they just left, including environmental and breathing conditions, in NTC.”

Records obtained by NBC 7 Investigates show the city was also informed about asbestos-containing materials in the NTC facilities when they signed a lease with the U.S. Navy. At that time, the Navy informed the city that they had surveyed two-thirds of the facilities and most contained asbestos and other materials containing lead.

The lawsuit claims the city told its employees that their move to Building 89 would be only temporary, but that the city, in fact, had no intention of finding them a safer, asbestos-free workplace.

“There was report after report of asbestos in [that building,] and the city was so callous and did not care,” Severson told NBC 7 Investigates. “It took its employees, who had already been exposed [to asbestos] downtown, and moved them into that asbestos-ridden building.”

The lawsuit lists 21 plaintiffs, including a 25-year community service officer with the San Diego Police Department, a half-dozen San Diego Fire-Rescue Department employees, and several Code Enforcement Division staffers.

In response to the lawsuit, a spokesperson for City Attorney Mara Elliot told NBC 7 Investigates, "Our office will seek direction from [the City Council and respond through the courts." 

The fire department has also said it responded quickly and appropriately to reports of any dangerous conditions at the Fire Academy buildings.

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