Lawmaker says he expects action on safer demolition sites

Posted: July 11, 2013

The chairman of the state House Urban Affairs Committee said Tuesday that he expected the legislature to move to strengthen safety requirements for city demolition projects.

"I don't see it as an issue in rural areas, but where you have larger cities where there's a tremendous amount of people, you need to take precautions, and the people that are taking down those type of buildings need to be professionals," said State Rep. Mario M. Scavello (R., Monroe), a former mayor of Mount Pocono.

"I think Philadelphia needs to do something quickly," Scavello added. "They cannot have somebody walking in saying, 'Here's $300. Let me take down a building.' "

Scavello presided at a three-hour committee hearing at the Independence Seaport Museum discussing ways to improve demolition safety standards throughout the state, particularly in Philadelphia.

The hearing, attended by two dozen legislators, was spurred by the June 5 demolition accident that killed six people at 22d and Market Streets, when a four-story brick wall collapsed on a Salvation Army thrift store.

Before the legislative session ends in late 2014, Scavello said, "we want to develop sound public policy which, God willing, will prevent anything like this from ever happening again."

The ranking Democrat on the committee, Bill Keller of South Philadelphia, sponsored a bill June 27 to require the city to beef up demolition requirements for any projects involving commercial and multifamily buildings.

Among other provisions, the bill would:

Require building and demolition plans from a licensed architect or engineer, and a site safety plan meeting standards set by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Force demolition contractors to obtain liability insurance for at least $1 million and identify any subcontractors on the project.

Provide notice of the demolition to neighboring property owners and applicants.

City officials would be required to verify the applicants' compliance, review the demolition plans, and conduct a site inspection.

Keller said the measure would also add 15 percent to the cost of building and construction permits, to go into a state account to enhance training and enforcement for municipal building inspectors.

Michael R. Taylor, executive director of the National Demolition Association, an 800-member group based in Doylestown, said the industry had a strong safety record, averaging just one fatality for every one million hours of work.

"If you make a mistake, you're going to be out of business," Taylor said, describing insurance, legal, and financial concerns that drive responsible contractors to focus on safety. He questioned whether architects and engineers would be as knowledgeable about demolition work as experienced contractors.

Other witnesses, including Robert F. Brehm, an associate teaching professor at Drexel University, and engineer David H. Fleisher of Fleisher Forensics in Ambler supported the proposed requirement for engineering input into demolition plans.

Philadelphia Commissioner of Licenses and Inspections Carlton Williams Sr. submitted written testimony claiming that Philadelphia's demolition requirements already "went further than those of almost all major cities."

"Let me be clear: This tragedy was not a regulatory failure, nor an enforcement failure on the part of L&I," Williams stated in his submission, though it went on to describe a long list of strengthened regulations put into place by Mayor Nutter on June 7, two days after the building collapse.

At one point, Keller held up a 90-page set of demolition requirements promulgated by New York City, comparing it unfavorably to four pages of regulations from the City of Philadelphia.

"Somebody was negligent, probably more than one person," said Jim Dollard, safety coordinator for Local 98 of the electrical workers union.

L&I does not "have the money, they don't have the people, and they don't have the training," Dollard said.

"A 90-page document is great," said Louis Agre, a union business agent with Local 542 of the operating engineers union, "but there has to be a will and the force of inspectors to make it work."


Contact Bob Warner at 215-854-5885 or warnerb@phillynews.com.

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