Outside Philadelphia, demolitions get more scrutiny

Oversight of demolition of the old Sears, Roebuck & Co. building includes daily visits by inspectors, according to Camden's Department of Code Enforcement.
Oversight of demolition of the old Sears, Roebuck & Co. building includes daily visits by inspectors, according to Camden's Department of Code Enforcement. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 14, 2013

On the Admiral Wilson Boulevard in Camden, the former Sears, Roebuck & Co. store is slowly coming down - but not without the eyes of city inspectors closely watching.

Is the work area surrounded by a barricade? Is water available to wet down the dust? Is the appropriate equipment being used, and is it being operated safely?

The inspectors visit the site daily, taking photos of the progress, said James Rizzo, construction expert in Camden's Department of Code Enforcement, Building Bureau.

"If you follow safety practices," he said, "the chances of an accident like Philadelphia's would be nonexistent."

Philadelphia - where six people died and 13 others were injured last week during the razing of a building - typically has not inspected demolition work in progress, Licenses and Inspections Commissioner Carlton Williams told reporters after the disaster.

A city inspector would inspect a demolition job once it was completed to survey for rubble removal, grading, and elimination of holes or other hazards, Williams said.

The city also relied on the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration to check safety issues at active demolition sites.

Last week's collapse prompted officials to adopt new demolition procedures that go into effect Friday. Demolition applicants must now detail their experience and have a plan for protection of adjacent properties, a schedule of work, proof of insurance, tax clearances, and no open L&I violations.

"After the tragic events of last week, it is necessary to implement heightened controls on private demolition activity to ensure that all demolition sites are safe for adjacent properties, pedestrians, and site workers," Williams said in announcing the changes.

Since the collapse, the city has inspected the 300 sites with open demolition permits. Nearly 100 were active locations and five were stopped for various reasons, including expired contractor licenses and lack of bracing.

"Like everybody else who saw what happened in Philadelphia, I said, 'Whoa!' It just looked like an unsafe situation," said Pat Crellman, demolition project manager at Winzinger Inc. in Hainesport, which is demolishing the Sears site. "Safety is always a prime concern."

The Salvation Army thrift store adjoining the demolition site "should have been evacuated" and the building being razed "should have been demolished by hand," said Thomas Catanzaro Jr., operation manager of Catanzaro & Sons Demolition of Montville, N.J.

"If you have a sensitive job in close quarters, it's a commonsense situation," he said. "You use an aerial lift and jackhammers and chipping guns."

The "top choice" for demolition "is doing it by hand. It takes longer but takes the risk out of the equation," Catanzaro said. "You can't put a price on safety.

"If there's any risk, we won't take it; we'll make sure the area is evacuated," he said. At the Market Street site, "there should have been an evacuation at the very least. It's mind-boggling."

Pennsylvania leaves it up to OSHA to enforce federal safety standards for demolition projects within the state. Twenty-five states have created their own programs, allowing them to dedicate more resources to overseeing demolition projects. New Jersey's state-run program applies only to public demolition projects.

Bristol Township, Bucks County, requires all commercial demolition to be overseen by an engineer, who draws up a plan that the town must approve, said Glenn Kucher, director of building, planning, and development.

"The more eyes on a project, the better," Kucher said. "The township can't be everywhere at once. Ultimately, the property owner's job is to ensure the safety of the project."

The municipality, though, still monitors the progress of each job. And it pays closer attention to demolitions of structures near other buildings.

Code-enforcement officials in towns in Bucks and Delaware Counties said Pennsylvania's Uniform Construction Code does not require them to inspect a demolition project in progress. But they said they check in on those projects anyway. They also said they can discern a contractor's competence from the very beginning.

"Before you would issue anything, you should really go out and look at the property and find out if they're giving you the correct information," said Robert Seward, code enforcement officer for Morrisville, Bucks County. "Are they giving you everything you need? Did they check to see where the utility lines are?

"I'll make sure everything is in order safety-wise," Seward said. "And then you look at something and your gut goes, 'Something just don't look right here.' And then we have a meeting."

Seward said he would halt a demolition job if a contractor lacks a fire hose to keep the dust down or if a demolition fence fails to encircle the whole property.

If there are any doubts about the safety of a planned demolition project, said John Jeffrey, director of code enforcement for Media Borough, he will ask the contractor to have a structural engineer explain how the building will safely come down.

One red flag could be a contractor in a hurry.

"I've seen a lot of experienced contractors," and if they grabbed too much roof, "they pull back," Jeffrey said. "That's someone who's experienced and has safety in mind.

"They'll take pieces of a roof away so it doesn't fall" on the adjacent building, he said. "If they show up and grab one whole handful of the building at once, you go, 'Whoa.' "

Jeffrey Gentile, director of licenses and inspection for Upper Darby, said the state doesn't specify the safety measures a contractor must take. For example, the code does not dictate that every contractor hire an engineer to draw up a demolition plan. But he said he requires one when a contractor tears down a building adjacent to one that is occupied.

In Camden, where from 100 to 200 buildings are razed each year, demolition applicants must show proof that the water and utilities have been turned off.

The city - which has 33,000 buildings, two-thirds residential - notifies owners of dilapidated and abandoned sites that certain maintenance must be completed to avoid demolition by the city, Rizzo said. If the work is not done, the property's historical and environmental issues are studied before the building is razed by a contractor who competed for the job through bidding.

"At smaller sites, we'll go a couple times [to inspect], not every day, but we will stop by" during the demolition, Rizzo said.

Larger sites receive additional scrutiny. "We have a [photo] record day to day," said Rizzo. "We oversee the work, make sure everything is in order, and if it's not, we'll stop it."

Contact Edward Colimore at 856-779-3833 or ecolimore@phillynews.com.


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