Contractors have demolished hundreds of Portland homes without first removing asbestos in accordance with state regulations. These requirements are supposed to be enforced by the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), but yet so many asbestos-containing homes have been demolished without any consequences.
According to Oregon regulations, any licensed contractor is required to abate asbestos before demolition construction begins. All workers are expected to wear proper safety equipment such as plastic coveralls and respirators to prevent exposure.
The city of Portland began asking contractors to certify their asbestos removals, but apparently has no authority to carry out the enforcement. The DEQ is aware its regulations are too weak for demolitions, but has not increased them since receiving construction industry complaints in 2002.
Now an estimated thousand or so houses with asbestos have been demolished in Portland since 2002 with the state approximating 650 homes each year. The amount of demolition permits has also increased to be larger than any other time in the past ten years.
Experts say 80 to 90 percent of the torn down homes from 2011 to 2014 do contain asbestos, yet only 33 percent of contractors have reported getting rid of the asbestos pre-demolition.
There’s one inspector position in the region that includes the city of Portland—and it hasn’t been filled for the past three years. The residents are feeling the effects, watching as some of the homes next to theirs get demolished.
“The only reason they got caught in this situation was because a neighbor made a phone call,” said Southeast Portland resident Heather Dickinson, who can remember seeing a backhoe tear into the house next to hers. She took pictures of the demolition as grayish-brown dust spread into the air from the asbestos-containing flooring and insulation.
“One would like to think that we’re all ok,” said Dickinson about her family, which includes her 6- and 8-year-old sons. “But you know, who knows?”
Asbestos exposure can lead to mesothelioma cancer, which is an aggressive cancer affecting the membrane lining of the lungs and abdomen.
Even after a house with asbestos gets torn down, the DEQ and Oregon’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) still don’t always share the heath risks with everyone surrounded by the demolition.
“It’s appalling. Most people think of DEQ, they think of it as a green organization,” said Activist Kimberly Koehler with the Eastmoreland Neighborhood Association. “But as a matter of fact, they’re not looking out for our interests.”
The DEQ says it’s the building owners’ responsibility to get rid of asbestos before any demolition construction. However, the organization does intend to “evaluate and update” its current asbestos rules for the following year.