More Asbestos Found on Florida Highway

Road workers in Florida are still finding masses of dangerous asbestos at a highway construction site near Fort Myers. Work crews employed by Lee County to look into the site near Summerlin Road came across three pieces of the dangerous substance on the site’s east side. They also exposed asbestos-laced concrete chunks that had been hidden under the surface of the road, in trenches excavated up to eight feet deep along the side of the highway.

These most recent findings, combined with more than thirty pieces of affected concrete retrieved on the west side of the crossing of Summerlin Road and College Parkway last month, are part of the mounting evidence uncovered during a probe of the contracting firm involved in road improvements at the intersection. The ongoing investigation has held up the project that was expected to widen Summerlin Road to two more lanes. Work on the project, with an estimated cost of $25.2 million, has been at a standstill for almost two months.

Lee County’s director of transportation, Scott Gilbertson, has said that investigators with his office want to be sure that the amount of information they are able to gather on the potential contamination in the area is complete before they allow workers to restart on the project. As a result, he is not able to offer a schedule as to when work on the project can resume. He also said that his workers will “have to dig through” the site for potential additional asbestos findings before he can clear the site as a safe working environment.

Officials with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, along with Lee County investigators and workers with Posen Construction, continue to work towards determining the level and extent of the asbestos contamination at the proposed site. If the amount of asbestos fiber found exceeds two hundred sixty linear feet, executives with Posen could be charged with violations of worker safety and environmental laws, punishable by jail time or fines of up to ten thousand dollars per day.

Although workers with the company are cooperating in the investigation, attorneys with the firm have not claimed any responsibility for the contamination. Officials with the company have also refused to answer questions from the press detailing their involvement in using the contaminated materials. However, Posen has hired out another contracting firm that specializes in asbestos removal and remediation to report on the site and to help with other facets of the probe.

Lee County Commissioner Brian Bigelow voiced his hope that the data compiled by the investigators would reveal the level of potential health hazard that the asbestos-laced concrete could pose to both workers and to drivers using the newly expanded road. Although asbestos is considered “safe” as long as it stays bonded to the concrete material, the fibers can become highly dangerous when allowed to become loose and airborne, according to agency staff at the Department of Environmental Protection. DEP workers carried out air and soil quality tests at the site and have yet to find any loose fibers, but the investigation will continue until all parties can resolve the contamination issue.


California Slated to Receive Asbestos Cleanup Funds

In December, President Obama signed a defense-funding bill that would allot $3.2 million to clean up and reclaim land around California’s Mount Umunhum near San Francisco. The area previously hosted Almaden Air Force Station from 1957 to 1980, a site that was home to many operations that left toxic wastes in the water and soil, including asbestos from abandoned buildings and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).

The federal funds are believed to be only a small fraction of the estimated $11 million required to fully reclaim the land. Rudy Jurgensen, a spokesman for the current owners of the site, the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District, said that his office would coordinate fundraising efforts to bring in the remainder of the funds needed to start the project.He stated that the efforts would also include approaching local, state and federal agencies for grants and low-interest loans.

Congressman Mike Honda, a Democrat who represents the district and led the charge for the funding on Capitol Hill, said that the cleanup project would start as soon as officers from the Army Corps of Engineers begin to develop a plan to remove the asbestos, lead paint and other toxic materials from the site. The Corps had previously surveyed the site to determine the levels of the various harmful substances present in both the still-standing structures and the surrounding soil and groundwater supplies.

According to the congressman, plans are already underway to tear down more than eighty structures on the site, including former officer housing, enlisted men’s barracks and a Cold War-era radar station known as “the Cube”. Congressman Honda also said that he would pursue another $800,000 in federal funding to cover the costs of the demolition. However, no mention was made on how the project would cover the costs of asbestos remediation and removal, nor were any timelines for the completion of the asbestos abatement efforts.

The radar station, erected in 1957, was used primarily as part of the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD) to oversee and intercept potentially hostile air traffic in northern California. During the base’s construction, workers used many materials that are now considered too dangerous or toxic. Many of the structures, including some of those used to house base personnel, used asbestos as insulation and fireproofing material.

The Air Force closed the station in 1980 and sold the land to the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District in 1986. The district was created in 1972 to create and preserve open spaces on public land in the San Francisco Bay area. Until recently, the land around Mount Umunhum contained such high concentrations of asbestos, waste oil and other toxic chemicals that area had to be closed to the public.

With the start of the cleanup efforts slated for early 2010, area officials hope to create a public park from the scenic site. Park planners have submitted ideas for jogging and hiking trails that will allow visitors to enjoy the view from the top of Mount Umunhum, which spreads from the downtown San Francisco skyline to the waters of Monterey Bay, within the next two years.