Des Moines, IA—The largest fine ever assessed in an Iowa civil asbestos case has been levied against a prominent developer. Bob Knapp, who remodeled the historic Equitable building in downtown Des Moines and added some high-end condominiums to the property, has been accused of mishandling asbestos and charged with a $500,000 fine.
Although Knapp tried to downplay the presence of asbestos in the building, which was renovated between 2005 and 2008, tests conducted by the state in 2007 showed that there was a considerable amount of asbestos-containing building material. Authorities say that Knapp hired workers who were not properly trained in asbestos removal, and did not provide the appropriate protective gear or respirators for their use during the renovations.
The building, which houses retail and commercial properties, was open during the construction and renovation project, and many thousands of Des Moines residents may have been exposed to airborne asbestos.
Asbestos, once widely used in construction and for insulation, is now known to be a hazardous material. It occurs naturally, and contains long, thin fibers which have great tensile strength and fireproof characteristics. When asbestos is damaged or disturbed, these microscopic fibers can be released into the air and breathed in. Once inside the human body, they lodge themselves into the lungs and other soft tissues, leading to deadly diseases down the line.
Asbestosis, pleural cancer, and mesothelioma – a rare, aggressive cancer which affects the protective tissue around the lungs, heart and stomach – are just some of the potential health problems caused by asbestos exposure.
Knapp has paid $100,000 of the fine, and must complete payment over the next two years or be found in contempt of court. The ruling comes just days after the bank foreclosed on the 19-story building, because Knapp owed $8 million on it.
The investigation into the Equitable building, which lasted for a year, began in September 2007 when an tipster sent a handwritten note to county officials. They contacted the Department of Natural Resources, who then referred the case to the Environmental Protection Agency and Attorney General Tom Miller’s office. The maximum fine that can be handed down by the DNR is $10,000, and officials in this case felt that amount was not sufficient.
Health workers have deemed the building to be safe now.