Thursday, November 10, 2005

Federal authorities are concerned that the D.C. government has not followed strict safety procedures for removing asbestos at a Northeast site since one of the District’s top asbestos regulators has been convicted of bribery and extortion, city records show.

The asbestos regulator — Jeffrey DeWhite Edwards, 43, of Bristow, Va. — offered a deal to a contractor hired to demolish incinerators at the Benning Road Solid Waste Transfer Facility in 2003.

In exchange for $10,000 in cash, Edwards told the contractor, Keystone Plus Construction, that he would sign off on less stringent asbestos-removal rules, court records show. Instead of taking the illegal deal, Keystone alerted authorities and cooperated in an FBI sting that led to Edwards’ arrest in February 2003.

Federal authorities say it could be years before any health risks are seen among workers or residents who live near the site.

“While reasonable people may differ on what form of containment, if any, should have been erected at the Benning Road site, it may be years from now (or never) when we are able to state whether non-friable procedures would or did cause any actual health risk to workers or citizens who lived nearby,” Assistant U.S. Attorney James W. Cooper wrote in an Oct. 18 memo.

“It may never be known, and the government did not seek to prove, whether the defendant was right when he said, in the first instance, that demolition could not be performed safely without full containment.”

D.C. health officials disagree, saying “full containment” of asbestos removed from the dump was not required.

The Department of Health (DOH) “made an independent assessment, exclusive of Edwards, of the project and is satisfied that the project was done in accordance with industry standards and regulations,” said Leila Abrar, a spokeswoman for the department.

At issue is whether the demolition should have proceeded under the stricter federal rules for “friable asbestos,” which typically calls for building a full-containment structure to keep asbestos fibers from being released into the air.

“Friable asbestos” can be ground into a fine powder and released into the air, while the federal rules for removing “nonfriable asbestos” usually are less stringent and do not generally require building full-containment structures, court records show.

Edwards told Keystone that it could remove asbestos under the less stringent “nonfriable” standards if it paid him a bribe, records show.

However, prosecutors say evidence in the case suggested that some of the asbestos at the Benning Road site was so degraded that it could have been considered “friable.” Yet, the project, after Edwards’ arrest, did not include provisions for full containment, they say.

D.C. health officials defended their oversight of the project after Edwards’ arrest in a written statement to The Washington Times last week. They said an independent consultant identified about 54,800 square feet of “nonfriable” asbestos-containing material at the site, on the 3200 block of Benning Road NE.

“DOH re-inspected the project after Edwards left the job,” the statement reads. “Several site inspections were conducted during the abatement process by two DOH inspectors. No violations were observed.”

In addition, city health officials said numerous air samples — collected by city inspectors and by officials with the contracting company — were “well below the acceptable clearance levels set by federal and District standards.”

Rather than using full containment, city health officials said they opted for a “hybrid” method of removing damaged asbestos containing material by crane to a “contained staging area,” where it was removed “under negative pressure containment,” according to the city’s statement.

“As the size, amount and location of the [asbestos-containing material] was too large and burdensome for full containment, a hybrid removal was approved and used,” the health department said.

Keystone officials could not be reached for comment.

A telephone call placed to a number listed under Edwards’ name was answered by someone who said Edwards did not live there.

Officials from the U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to comment last week, referring instead to court records filed in the case.

An attorney for Edwards said in a legal pleading last month that Edwards did not cause any harm to city residents or workers.

Edwards’ attorney wrote in a memo, “The project was reinspected after Edwards’ very highly public arrest and allowed to proceed according to the same basic plans he had approved when bribed.”

Edwards is appealing a nearly three-year prison sentence he received on bribery and extortion charges last month. His attorney had sought probation instead of prison, saying Edwards had rehabilitated himself by concentrating on church, family and new jobs.

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