Editor's Notes

Building with asbestos


Asbestos is nasty stuff. It's the scariest kind of environmental contaminant: you often can't see it, you can't smell it, you can't taste it, it hangs around for a while, and it's hard to get rid of. Asbestos fibers are tiny, invisible to the naked eye — and once they get in the air, they don't tend to settle quickly. A single fiber can take eight hours to fall six feet in utterly still air; with the wind blowing, the stuff can float around for days or weeks. If you inhale it, you don't typically notice, and there's no easy test for exposure. But it sticks around in your lungs forever and can cause cancer and other deadly diseases 10 or 20 years down the road.

At that point, of course, it's nearly impossible to prove exactly where and when you were exposed.

I learned all of this years ago when I was writing about asbestos contamination in the San Francisco public schools. For years the stuff was used as insulation (and as linings in automotive brake pads), and for good reason: it's essentially a rock that you can weave into something resembling cloth. And because it's a rock, it's tough and doesn't burn. Of course, when the insulation coverings get old, as they did in the schools, and the asbestos starts to leak out, you have a public health emergency of such major proportions that schools have to be shut down and lots of expensive, difficult remediation work done.

Now there's another asbestos story in San Francisco, and it's a more tricky one: Lennar Corp., which has the master redevelopment contract in Bayview–Hunters Point, has been digging up an area that's full of naturally occurring asbestos. The area badly needs economic development, so it's harsh to ban any type of construction there. And I think it's possible to build safely in the area — but it's complicated and expensive, and since there are residents (and schoolkids) nearby, there's zero margin for error. You have to be willing (or forced) to watch every whiff of dust, to monitor the air with sophisticated equipment — and to shut down work the moment it appears that the dust isn't being or can't be controlled.

That doesn't mesh well with a financially troubled company that is trying desperately to avoid costly construction delays.

As Sarah Phelan reports on page 16, a Lennar manager who was threatening to shut down work because subcontractors weren't controlling asbestos-laden dust was fired and is now suing. The Bay Area Air Quality Management District is threatening multimillion-dollar fines. Yet Lennar is still complaining that any effort to shut down the site, even for short periods of time, would be unfair — because, the company says in a confidential memo, that would cost $40,000 a day.

This doesn't sound like a company that can be trusted — yet Mayor Gavin Newsom now wants to give the outfit even more public land. A measure headed for the June 2008 ballot would allow Lennar to develop thousands of homes at Candlestick Point — and possibly build a new stadium for the 49ers. The stadium deal is pure political bullshit; Newsom doesn't want to be accused of "losing" the local football team, so he'll toss whatever public cash he can scrape up in the Niners' direction. But the team wants to leave, the stadium does little for the neighborhood economy, and Lennar is going to keep cutting corners (and public safety) to improve its bottom line.

Sounds like a bad deal to me.

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