Landlord Faces Criminal Charges Over “Asbestos Shower”

It’s deja vu all over again…” So said famed ballplayer Yogi Berra, and it seems applicable in this case–albeit on a smaller scale. Back in the 1960s, the late asbestos disease researcher Dr. Irving Selikoff reported seeing “showers of asbestos” falling from the towers of the World Trade Center as workers applied liberal amounts of asbestos fireproofing to the girders. Selikoff’s report to NYC health authorities led to a ban on the substance in May of 1970. The recent “asbestos shower” in a Minnesota apartment complex was not quite as dramatic or widespread. Nonetheless, landlord Michael D. Phillips could face large monetary fines and/or prison time if found guilty of violating the Clean Air Act. It’s similar to many other stories we have reported here at–a building owner who attempts to save money by having asbestos removal performed by untrained workers without any type of protective clothing. According to the report, “… asbestos dust was showering down on people working without masks and protective suits.”

Phillips defense for his actions so far? Ignorance: “If being stupid is the same as being guilty, then I’m guilty… if I knew then what I know now about asbestos, I never would have bought that building.” Phillips purchased the 20-unit apartment two years ago as an investment and did not have the building inspected because his lender didn’t require one. Last summer, contractors working on HVAC system reported the presence of asbestos on building pipes. The warrant, issued by U.S. Attorney Mel Johnson, states that Phillips threatened to evict his tenants if they complained about the way the asbestos was being removed–using an illegal “dry-cutting” method, creating substantial amounts of dust. EPA regulations require that amended water be used to wet down such asbestos materials so as to prevent the spread of dust. Sandy Kurth, the former building manager, quoted Phillips as saying that ” You have to work with [asbestos] for 10 to 15 years before it’s a problem and you get ill.” All tenants have now been relocated and the building closed off. If there is a lesson here, it is that anyone considering the purchase of any home or building constructed prior to 1980 should have it checked for asbestos, since such materials were virtually always present in some form.