Lawsuit Contends City Workers Unjustly Exposed to Asbestos Risk

Thursday, July 28, 2016, 9:58 am
Alice Dreger and Ann Nichols

Above: a photo taken in the wastewater treatment plant, allegedly showing crumbling asbestos insulation on a pipe.

There doesn’t seem to be a simple answer to why administrators for the City of East Lansing would have ordered an analysis of asbestos in our wastewater treatment plant in 2007 and then not followed the recommendations for seven more years, until workers under them finally raised an alarm. Yet that appears to be what happened based on records we have obtained, including transcripts of recent depositions in the ongoing lawsuit by nine plant employees against the City.

That 2007 report, generated by the external consultant Fibertec and sent to a supervisor at the plant, identified “a total of 89 distinct suspect asbestos-containing materials” in the plant buildings. This included “damaged” and “friable known and assumed asbestos-containing materials”—the kind that pose a relatively active danger to humans who might breathe it in.

Fibertec’s written recommendations in 2007 included notifying everybody (including outside contractors) who might encounter the materials at the plant, providing safety training to the regular workers, planning for abatement, clearly labeling asbestos-containing materials, and moving to repair areas with significant damage. These were, by this point in history, standard practices.

Yet according to the nine plant employees now suing the City for exposure, most or all of this didn’t happen. No one specifically notified them, as was required by law. The questionable materials were not labeled. There was not appropriate safety training or abatement, and workers entering steam tunnels where likely asbestos had been identified were not told to wear protective breathing equipment.

Recent depositions of supervisors strongly suggest that while asbestos had been appropriately handled prior to this period, workers at the plant were left vulnerable from at least 2007-2014, lacking the asbestos protections they were due under state and federal law.

In February 2014, having come to realize they may have been exposed to asbestos dangers, plant maintenance workers made a complaint to City administrators. In March 2014, someone at the plant also made a complaint to the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration (MIOSHA). That complaint stated that “Asbestos has been known to be present in this facility since 2007. It is on all piping in the plant and mainly on the first floor in the tunnels. No one has been told that asbestos is present. It has been falling down on the floor, walked on, and dry swept up by employees who are not trained on asbestos and do not know the hazards.”

The MIOSHA complaint seems likely to have been filed by Troy Williams, a Maintenance Specialist at the plant. That same month, he told the City’s Human Resources Department that he had serious concerns about the handling of asbestos at the Plant. According to notes compiled by staff in Human Resources, Williams reported that, “In the late fall/early winter a large piece of material had fallen in the south tunnel of the plant, and it was left lying in the tunnel for a very long amount of time (months).”

Williams also told Human Resources that, “In the first six months of his job Williams was cleaning up some debris when his supervisor, [Maintenance Supervisor Wayne] Beede, commented that there was asbestos around. Beede then said that if Williams went around talking about asbestos he would not have a job anymore.”

MIOSHA appears ultimately to have found plenty of evidence to support the complaints involving asbestos risk. As ELi reported last year, after investigating, MIOSHA found the City had committed various “serious” violations with regard to asbestos at the plant, including failing to provide asbestos awareness training, failing to appropriately deal with asbestos waste and debris, and failing to notify workers who might enter the concerning areas about the potential for asbestos exposure. The City was fined and required to fix the problems.

The recent deposition of Jeffrey Johnston, who was Superintendent of the plant from 1999 to 2012, would also seem to confirm that Fibertec’s recommendations were not followed, even though in his sworn testimony, Johnston said that he saw the Fibertec study, as did maintenance supervisor Michael Asher (Beede’s predecessor). Johnston thought Director of Public Works Todd Sneathen also saw the report.

Johnston recalls that the Fibertec study was “very detailed” and that it “definitely” “affected multiple areas of the waste water treatment plant.” He confirmed there were “no warning signs placed” and that he did not “provide two-hour asbestos hazard awareness training” as Fibertec advised was required. According to Johnston, to his knowledge, there “was no removal or abatement” between 2007 and when he retired in 2012. Again, MIOSHA’s findings appear to confirm this.

Johnston does recall having formal and proper asbestos abatement of one area in the plant years earlier, in 2001 or 2002. He also recalls the 2007 Fibertec report being stored in the maintenance department and in a supervisor’s office. He says that when he passed the plant Superintendent baton to Catherine Garnham in 2012, he pointed out the report to her.

The depositions of three previous maintenance supervisors at the plant—Robert Brunsting, Dennis Smith, and Michael Asher, who in succession preceded Beede—also seem to confirm that, in the past, the plant had dealt with asbestos properly, and that supervisors knew of the risks of asbestos.

Robert Brunsting was maintenance supervisor from 1993 until 2002 when he retired.  In his deposition, like Superintendent Johnston under whom he worked, Brunsting recalls a proper asbestos abatement that had been done during his tenure. In his deposition Brunsting also made it very clear he knew the health hazards of asbestos, saying he would not expose workers unduly to asbestos because of the health risks.

Dennis Smith took over as maintenance supervisor after Robert Brunsting, and retired in 2006. In Smith’s deposition, he also demonstrates his knowledge of the dangers of asbestos: “we knew that it was a banned substance that we were not supposed to handle. It was dangerous.” Smith also said they didn’t want to expose workers or anyone else to asbestos risk.

Following Smith, Michael Archer was maintenance supervisor from 2006 to 2009. It appears from his deposition that Asher was aware of the asbestos study done in 2007. He indicated that he knew that when asbestos becomes airborne, it can be dangerous. He knew that people dealing with airborne asbestos needed to wear proper protective gear.

So the depositions of Brunsting, Smith, and Asher suggest that in the past, at least some of the supervisors in the City’s wastewater treatment plant (now renamed the Water Resource Recovery Facility) knew how to deal with asbestos properly.

In his testimony, Todd Sneathen, who was Director of Public Works from 2002 through 2014, acknowledged that he knew of the dangers of asbestos. Sneathen also recalled being aware of the Fibertec study being ordered, but said he did not recall discussions about it.

When asked by the plaintiffs’ attorney if he shared the results of the study with employees, so they would know of the risks, Sneathen replied, “I guess I’m not sure that it was shared, but my understanding is it was on a shelf—on two shelves, there were two copies that were present at the facility.”

Sneathen acknowledged that it was only in 2014, in response to complaints made by employees (those who later became plaintiffs), that the City’s administrators developed appropriate policies regarding asbestos, provided training, and hung warning signs.

During the deposition, the plaintiffs’ attorney, Neal Wilensky, asked Sneathen whether he recalled a wastewater treatment plant “Values and Expectations” document developed before the Fibertec study. It began, “We will always be truthful. We will strictly adhere to the letter and spirit of all laws, policies and directives.” It included the statement, “We will be fair in all relationship[s] with co-workers and citizens as we conduct our business.”

Entering that statement into the record, Wilensky asked Sneathen, “The City was supposed to be truthful to employees?” He asked more specifically whether this meant “telling the employees about that [Fibertec] study.”

Sneathen replied, “If that’s what you consider to be truthful, if that’s the definition of truthful, providing that study at that point in time, then my understanding is it may not have been provided at that time.”

The deposition of Catherine Garnham, who was the plant Superintendent from 2012 to 2014, also appears to confirm that Garnham and other administrators acted on Fibertec’s 2007 asbestos recommendations only after employees raised the alarm in February of 2014. In the transcript of the deposition, the plaintiffs’ attorney asks Garnham, “What were the appropriate steps” to dealing with asbestos?”

Garnham replied, “The appropriate steps were to notify the employees that could have been affected that there was asbestos—potentially asbestos containing materials and to contact a professional company to have the material either removed or repaired.” Asked when that was done, Garnham replied it was February of 2014.

Asked to confirm this “was seven years after the [Fibertec] study?” Garnham replied, “Correct.”

Garnham and Sneathen both took jobs elsewhere in 2014, and no longer work for the City of East Lansing. The Lansing State Journal reported that Wayne Beede also ended his employment with the City in a separation agreement that paid Beede over $26,000. The City has since been dealing with the recommendations made by Fibertec in 2007.

Whether workers at the plant were exposed to enough asbestos fibers to cause them health problems remains unclear from the documents we have obtained so far. As we reported yesterday, the plaintiffs face a high legal hurdle.


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