At a time when the city has doubled its demolition budget, you'd think demolition companies would be ecstatic. But some of the area's biggest contractors are considering walking away from city jobs altogether.
The reason: confusion and contention about how to handle asbestos concerns during the demolition process.
Asbestos is a fibrous material often used in insulation. When it is cracked or torn, its microscopic filaments are released into the air, where they can cause cancer or respiratory problems when inhaled. Still, the risk created by taking down a single house in an open-air environment is thought to be small, and neither the city nor the Allegheny County Health Department has required a check for asbestos when demolishing a single-family house.
But because the city hopes to take down 600 houses this year, focusing on several neighborhoods in particular, health officials are considering extra scrutiny.
In a March 7 release, the city advised contractors that in the future, the demolition process "may include either requiring contractors to do an asbestos survey prior to demolition or training city employees to perform surveys."
That proposal resulted from talks between the city and the county's Health Department. Dr. Bruce Dixon, who directs the county agency, says officials are trying to strike a balance between air quality and neighborhood revitalization.
"We want to remediate every neighborhood, but we want to do it in a way that's safe," Dixon says. He also cautions against panicking over the asbestos threat. While "one particle is one too many," he says, "the reality is probably all of us get exposed to it every day."
But contractors say that if the city forces them to do the surveys, rather than city employees, no one will be any safer. In fact, they say, responsible bidders will be punished. Among the loudest dissenting voices is ROAC, Inc., the company hired to demolish nearly 60 Hazelwood homes.
"Transferring this obligation to the contractor invites cheating and foul play with the results in order to secure these contracts," ROAC Vice President Jocelyn Rouse wrote in a March 17 letter to the city.
Rouse pointed out that the Urban Redevelopment Authority and other government bodies conduct asbestos surveys themselves: Government surveyors provide the results to bidders, who then factor the findings into their cost estimates.
"The days of the City doing business the old way have made renegades out of all good contractors who are forced to do it your way or take the highway," Rouse wrote in her letter, which borrowed heavily from a similar letter written by Ken Reilly of Ken Reilly Contracting and Demolition.
In an interview, Rouse explained that by asking contractors to conduct the survey, the city is encouraging unscrupulous firms to doctor the results and keep the bid low. "I've seen it done before," she says.
Why wouldn't city officials want to keep contractors honest by surveying the asbestos threat themselves? A big part of the answer is money.
Ultimately, demolition manager Paul Loy says he wants to have city inspectors certified to perform the asbestos surveys themselves. But the budget for training would have to come from elsewhere: "We can't use the demolition money for that," he says.
The county conducted its own partial survey of the Hazelwood properties, according to Dixon. And it's requiring ROAC to wet the homes prior to demolition. Hosing down asbestos helps trap dust, preventing harmful particles from escaping into the air.
Even so, the Hazelwood contract could be the last for ROAC.
"Had it been subject to [the requirement to do surveys before bidding], we wouldn't have bid," Rouse says.
Other contractors are unhappy as well. A handful of demolition contractors -- who Rouse says account for 80 percent of the demolition work done in Pittsburgh -- met on March 1 to discuss the city's changing policies toward asbestos surveys.
Rouse says there was a general consensus to refuse bidding on contracts that require contractors to do surveys, until the city meets with them and responds to their concerns.
The dispute seems unlikely to interfere with the next round of demolitions, at least. Loy says that the next contract (which is expected to be put out as this issue goes to press) will be for scattered properties, and won't require an asbestos survey at all. But future "blitz" packages, like the one in Hazelwood, could cause a collision between health concerns, neighborhood redevelopment and fair bidding procedures.
"The city hasn't done their work in the past," says Rouse. "I'm concerned for my brother [site supervisor Kurt Rouse], my workers."