State takes oversight, investigative actions on asbestos in Marco Polo building

Always Investigating

Two state agencies are now taking action over asbestos at the scene of the massive fire at the Marco Polo building.

It’s an issue Always Investigating has been looking into following the blaze. Several firefighters and residents told us of concerns they were exposed to the hazardous material at the fire scene, and they questioned if proper measures were taken to ensure safety.

Eleven days after the fire dislodged the hazardous material, there’s still not yet an asbestos abatement plan in authorities’ hands. The state Department of Health has taken oversight, and the state Department of Labor’s workplace safety division is investigating.

Meanwhile residents say they’ve not been warned about the materials.

Trade winds whip straight through the Marco Polo’s charred tunnels of debris and destruction left in the wake of the July 14 fire. An overflowing dumpster of waste from smoke and water-soaked floors sits open by the sidewalk.

This building contains asbestos, potentially dangerous and deadly when dislodged and frayed.

“The units that were heavily affected by a lot of debris and everything like that. I didn’t see any of the fire inspectors or people wearing masks at all,” a Marco Polo resident who wished to remain anonymous told Always Investigating, “and therefore I don’t think that residents were probably aware. Because they didn’t see them with masks on, that probably deterred them from thinking that they even needed that.”

The firefighters union says its workforce wasn’t warned going in and still hasn’t been cautioned by management.

“I have not seen anything from HFD in regards to addressing the asbestos issue at all,” said Bobby Lee, president of the Hawaii Fire Fighters Association. “Pretty much from firefighters out there, there hasn’t been any talk about asbestos. It’s just the general direction of cleaning your turnouts when you get to the station.”

We asked the Honolulu Fire Department what precautions its personnel are taking at the scene and back at the stations at this time, and if any additional health notices, screenings or services are being provided to firefighters who worked the fire. An HFD spokesman responded that they continue to use appropriate protective equipment and did not provide more specifics other than to say they are following established protocols and procedures.

Always Investigating reviewed HFD decontamination procedures and found nothing specific to asbestos, which is what Honolulu Fire Chief Manuel Neves told the Honolulu Fire Commission last week: “There’s no difference. We have a decontamination process, and if we determine the turnouts are not usable then we take them out of service.”

The union reached out to the Hawaii Occupational Safety and Health Division (HIOSH) with concerns about firefighter asbestos exposure.

“Once our firefighters got out of the building, they should have collected their personal protective equipment, bagged it on scene and taken it to the storeroom to be properly dealt with,” Lee said. “Instead what happened was our firefighters ended up jumping back into their trucks, contaminating the trucks or the potential contamination of our trucks, going back to our station, contaminating the stations and passing this contamination to the other watches coming into the stations.”

He said the 20 companies that responded returned to at least a dozen stations.

The state Labor Department Director Linda Chu Takayama told Always Investigating “HIOSH inspectors are conducting an investigation in conjunction with an open case file on this issue. They have also been in contact with DOH staff regarding the asbestos component.”

Always Investigating asked the state Department of Health, which regulates asbestos, what it did and when. DOH said that three days after the fire, the department began “working with the building association, consultant and contractor to ensure the proper identification and handling of asbestos in an expedited manner.”

That’s news to many residents.

“You see where the brown box is up there,” resident Barbara Hudman said, gesturing up to a boarded-up unit, “that’s me right next door to the left.”

Always Investigating asked, when she went in last week, did anybody warn her to take any kind of precautions on asbestos?

“No,” Hudman said.

Always Investigating asked, does that concern you now that you know there are state investigations into it?

“Well I guess so,” Hudman said. “I mean to be honest, we should have been warned.”

Health officials say their oversight includes ensuring certified asbestos inspectors, air monitors and abatement workers are used at Marco Polo and that they follow proper protocols including disposal, plus clearance activities for re-occupancy.

We pressed for more details and the health department told us air and debris samples “showed asbestos containing fire damaged debris on the 26th, 27th, and 28th floors with recommendations to isolate those floors from the rest of the building.”

The state still has not been given a final abatement work plan but said it expects the building’s consultant will be turning it in to the condo association and the department in a few days.

The Board of Directors Marco Polo AOAO told Always Investigating in a statement: “The board is taking all appropriate action as recommended by the environmental testing company and the State of Hawaii Department of Health.”

That does not yet appear to include visual warnings to residents, vendors, and authorities coming and going from the building.

“It’s worse for the immediate outcome for the people on the 26th, 27th and 28th,” said the resident who did not want to be named, “but the people on the lower floors are going to be on the flooded floors, and those around are affected by the debris and everything else around, they may even think that they don’t need protection.”

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Honolulu Fire Department Q&A

Always Investigating: What protocol and precautions are HFD personnel taking at the scene at this time?

HFD: Honolulu Fire Department personnel continue to utilize the appropriate personal protective equipment.

Always Investigating: What protocol and precautions are being taken for the people, materials and equipment used at the scene and taken back to the various stations, and also at each station?

HFD: HFD personnel shall continue to follow established protocols and procedures as required.

Always Investigating: Are any additional health notices, screenings or services being provided to firefighters who worked the scene that day?

HFD: HFD personnel shall continue to follow established protocols and procedures as required.

The HFD takes the safety of its members very seriously and has procedures and training in place to ensure their safety.

The Marco Polo incident is still under review, and it would be premature for HFD comment on the incident before that review has been completed.

Department of Health statement and Q&A

“DOH is involved with providing the guidance and regulatory oversight for the handling of asbestos at the Marco Polo building. The building association has hired an environmental consultant (a certified asbestos project designer) to prepare the asbestos cleanup work plan. Our department has not yet received the final plan, however, we are working with the building association, consultant and contractor to ensure the proper identification and handling of asbestos in an expedited manner. DOH oversight involves ensuring certified asbestos inspectors, project designers, air monitors, abatement workers and supervisors are used, as well as proper abatement work practice standards, material disposal and clearance activities for re-occupancy. The final abatement workplan will likely be submitted to the building association and DOH by the consultant in a few days.”

Always Investigating: Was there any DOH presence, actions or warnings to residents and workers on the day of or immediately after the fire regarding the presence of asbestos at the scene?

DOH: The fire occurred on Friday afternoon, July 14. DOH became involved on Monday, July 17 with coordination with building management. The management had assumed the presence of asbestos in the ceiling materials and acted with that in mind.

Always Investigating: How is protection against the hazardous material at and around the building currently being handled in advance of the final abatement plan?

DOH: The environmental consultant sampled air and debris in various areas/floors of the building. Preliminary information showed asbestos containing fire damaged debris on the 26th, 27th, and 28th floors with recommendations to isolate those floors from the rest of the building.

Always Investigating: With any building with a history of asbestos, does DOH work with any other authorities or agencies (i.e. Fire Department, EMS, etc) to keep them notified of hazardous materials on any site in case of future fire/disaster/rescue?

DOH: Yes. Since most buildings of all types contain some asbestos-containing materials (particularly those built prior to the 1980s), emergency response personnel have hazardous waste operations training as required by OSHA.

Always Investigating: Generally speak to the dangers of asbestos – in what volume is it dangerous – and what people who were potentially exposed to it on the day of or after the fire should be doing in the mean time for their health?

DOH: DOH in cooperation with U.S. EPA regulate demolition and renovation activities which may disturb materials containing greater than 1 percent (hence, prior inspection is typically required with normal demolition/renovation). In this situation, likely the smoke inhalation is a much greater immediate concern and individuals should check with their doctor about their health condition. Individuals who have been exposed (or suspect they have been exposed) to asbestos fibers on the job, through the environment, or at home via a family contact should inform their doctor about their exposure history and whether or not they experience any symptoms.

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Always Investigating: How many asbestos abatements have been done in the past at the Marco Polo?

DOH: Upon review of our database, there were twelve (12) notifications of asbestos removal received from abatement contractors for work at the Marco Polo building since 2001. Most of the notifications were for work in individual units (none of the units on the 26th, 27th, and 28th floors) scattered about the building and a couple on the roof. According to news reports, the Marco Polo building has 586 apartment units in the building.

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