By Derrick Perkins (File Photo)
Renovations at the Hunting Point apartment complex screeched to a sudden halt last week after the Environmental Protection Agency revealed workers were inappropriately handling materials containing asbestos.
The agency announced the discovery April 2, informing Laramar Group — the Chicago-based company that bought the property last year — residents and local media of the violations. An EPA spokeswoman said the infractions came to light after the agency received a tip in January.
Laramar and its contractor, listed as Chelsea Environmental, Inc., in the EPA compliance order, are accused of violating the National Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants. The charges include failing to remove and properly dispose of asbestos-containing material.
The EPA also cited Laramar and Chelsea for not keeping an employee trained in handling asbestos on site.
Julie Chase, spokeswoman for Laramar, said the company is looking into how the infractions occurred. Work remains stalled until federal officials conclude the violations have been addressed.
“We are sussing that out right now,” Chase said. “Had we received any communication, we would have reacted swiftly. As of last week, the minute we were officially notified, we acted swiftly.”
Asbestos is a fibrous material frequently used in building insulation in the mid-20th century, until it was proven to be carcinogenic. It is linked to the development of multiple chronic lung diseases, most notably mesothelioma.
Tenants continued to live in the building, one of several situated on the banks of the Potomac in south Old Town, throughout the renovation work. While EPA officials know asbestos-containing materials were present, they cannot say whether residents were at risk, said Donna Heron, agency spokeswoman.
“There is a potential that people were exposed to asbestos, but at this particular point — and I say that because we have positively tested for asbestos in various places in the building — we don’t have any information that there were unhealthy levels of asbestos in the building,” she said. “[We] can’t say because there is no way of telling. Asbestos fibers kind of float around in the air and so at this point we don’t really know what the levels were.”
Responding to concerns that the EPA should have acted sooner, Heron said the agency follows a series of steps before intervening. That includes conducting inspections, testing samples and working with lawyers.
The federal regulator moved as soon as it could, she said.
“We can’t just go in and immediately take action,” Heron said. “We can’t do anything until we complete the process and talk to all of the people and look at all of the information we have. … When the stop order was sent out, that was when we were prepared to step in.”
That has done little to assuage fears in the community. Word of the presence of asbestos has many tenants, who already worry rising rents will force them out, increasingly uneasy.
“It’s a concern to folks,” said resident Ed Dickau. “I just had a couple of other phone calls from other members of the community and they are very concerned. I have an apartment on my floor that they’re in the process of renovating and it’s been under renovation for some time because they’re [doing] some serious work there. … The EPA has basically shut the door and put the warning [sign] up there.”
The EPA held an informational meeting Saturday with Laramar officials in attendance. But by all accounts, residents also used the gathering to voice complaints about rent hikes.
The state Department of Transportation owned the property for years, having bought it as part of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge project. As work wrapped up, though, residents — many who had seen rents frozen during the bridge’s construction — learned the complex was slated for sale.
Richmond kept silent for months. Then, in late 2012, tenants discovered that a potential buyer was inspecting the property. Not long after, Laramar was revealed as the interested party. A deal was struck and, in spring 2013, the land changed hands.
From the beginning, groups of residents worried Laramar would convert the complex into luxury apartments. Their numbers swelled with the renovation work, as did complaints about the construction.
Even Dickau, who once “applauded” the then-proposed upgrades and complimented the new management team in a letter to the editor published in the Alexandria Times, is worried about his future. If his rent goes up again when his lease comes up for renewal in July, he likely will have to leave, Dickau said.
The EPA’s ordered work stoppage just adds to the uncertainty, he said. The two issues — asbestos and affordability — are inextricably linked in his mind.
“The asbestos is a concern. Nobody is really aware of: Have they been affected? And how are they affected? And the other concern is finding housing they can afford,” Dickau said. “They’re wrapped up together now. Nobody knows how fast or how slow [Laramar] is going to be able to make progress now. How long is this [work stoppage] going to last? … The building is quiet and it hasn’t been quiet since January.”