Proof Positive: Health inspection finds asbestos in apartment cleared by PHA

Health Department testing shows asbestos contamination in the basement of Kyeesha Wright's PHA-managed home, after PHA told her it was safe. Above, her basement pipes.
Health Department testing shows asbestos contamination in the basement of Kyeesha Wright's PHA-managed home, after PHA told her it was safe. Above, her basement pipes.
Posted: February 02, 2010

KYEESHAH WRIGHT said her stomach lurched when a city health inspector came to her door yesterday and confirmed her worst fear: Her basement was contaminated with potentially deadly asbestos fibers.

"They lied to me," Wright said, referring to her landlord, the Philadelphia Housing Authority, which manages the Hill Creek Apartments, in Crescentville.

"I was mad. It was messed up," said Wright, 28, who is pregnant with her fourth child. "I don't feel as though I should be living here."

The city Health Department took samples from Wright's basement last week after getting an anonymous tip that it may be contaminated.

The Daily News yesterday reported allegations that a PHA work crew sent to fix a leak in Wright's apartment last September ripped asbestos insulation off the pipes and tossed it on the floor in her basement and kitchen.

Carpenter Robert Smith and PHA senior maintenance aide Rudy Barbosa told the Daily News that a PHA foreman ordered them to dump the asbestos debris into a hole in the kitchen wall, which had been opened to expose the pipes.

Smith and Barbosa alleged that the way asbestos was handled in Wright's apartment was routine at the Hill Creek site - and illegal. Last week, PHA spokesman David Tillman called the allegations by Smith and Barbosa "crazy" and "flat-out not true."

Last night, Tillman released a statement saying that PHA will remove the asbestos from Wright's apartment and "is investigating whether there were any improper actions by PHA employees. . ."

Meanwhile, more than a dozen former and current PHA workers called the Daily News yesterday and said that what unfolded in Wright's apartment was not unique to Hill Creek.

The PHA workers claimed that supervisors routinely ordered them to remove asbestos tiles and pipe insulation at buildings across the city. After removing asbestos pipe insulation, the workers often discarded the debris inside walls or tossed it into PHA dumpsters. Those who refused to do the job got fired, the workers alleged.

"This has been going on for years at PHA," said John Dougherty, who worked as a PHA maintenance electrician from 2000 to 2008. "This is the quote of PHA: 'You either do it or you're fired. You want a job, you do it.' It's the slogan of PHA."

Federal and local laws mandate that only trained, licensed contractors may remove asbestos from public buildings, and require asbestos debris to be disposed of in sealed bags, then trucked to a special landfill.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is also investigating what happened at the Hill Creek site.

The Health Department yesterday ordered PHA to clean up the asbestos in Wright's basement, according to Health Commissioner Donald F. Schwarz.

The Health Department also plans to an hire an environmental firm to test the air in Wright's entire apartment, he said.

"The purpose of the air sampling is to find out whether we need to look further for another source of asbestos," Schwarz said.

PHA's Tillman, in his written statement last night, said, "We have hired a licensed abatement contractor to repair the asbestos [pipe] insulation and clean out the basement. We are also committed to re-educating and retraining our staff to enhance employee and resident safety."

PHA hired Kenya Mann Faulkner, a partner at the law firm of Ballard Spahr Andrews & Ingersoll and a former federal prosecutor, to "conduct an independent review and . . . take appropriate action when that review is complete," Tillman said.

Wright remains in her apartment, but said she's concerned for the health of her three children - aged 11, 2 and 7 months.

She said she wants PHA to move her to a different apartment.

"All they want to do is clean the basement," Wright said yesterday. "That's not right."

Wright said she's worried because the asbestos fibers have been in her basement since September.

For the past six months, she's done laundry in the basement, leaving jeans to dry on a clothes line. Her children also played down there. Wright said she keeps their summer clothes in the drawers of a metal file cabinet, which sits beneath damaged asbestos pipe insulation in her basement.

"It's airborne. It's already contaminated," Wright said. "It's all on my clothes and on my kids' toys."

PHA supervisors advised Wright to throw out the clothes, but promised to clean the kids' toys, including a plastic kiddie pool and Barbie dolls, she said.

Tillman said in his statement last night that PHA didn't "believe anyone was injured as a result of this matter" but was "moving quickly to remove any doubt."

Jim Weltz, an asbestos expert and president of Criterion Laboratories in Bensalem, said that, to be safe, PHA should ensure that Wright's entire apartment, including the basement, is clean.

"The smaller the asbestos fiber, the longer it will stay airborne," Weltz said. "Some asbestos fibers are so small, they almost behave as a gas. . . . Asbestos is very sticky. It adheres to things, especially other fibers like clothing."

Dougherty yesterday recalled an incident at the Spring Garden Homes several years ago in which a plumber used a blowtorch to help remove asbestos insulation from a pipe inside a tenant's unit.

"The plumber was burning the pipes, trying to burn off the asbestos," Dougherty said. "It smelled like a mattress was on fire . . ."

The plumber told Dougherty that burned asbestos insulation "breaks down quicker" and "is easier to get off the pipes," according to Dougherty.

When Dougherty complained, his supervisor told him to "stop being a baby and go back in the unit and finish the job," he said.

After removing the pipe wrap, PHA workers then put the asbestos debris in trash bags and threw them out with the regular garbage, Dougherty said.

"The whole place is just reckless," Dougherty said.

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