Register Investigation: Asbestos dispute at historic Younkers building heats up

Register Investigation: Asbestos dispute at historic Younkers building heats up

Source:, February 24, 2014
By: Jason Clayworth

Allegations of unsafe practices prompt libel suit

A contractor initially involved in renovations at the former Younkers building in downtown Des Moines claims that hundreds of people are being exposed daily to asbestos or lead poisoning at the site.

Multiple state officials say a complaint about the asbestos made to 11 state and federal officials Jan. 29 is unfounded — and a company overseeing the renovation work filed a lawsuit this month alleging multiple counts of libel against RedNet Environmental Services of West Des Moines, the company making the asbestos allegations.

A director of a national advocacy group for proper asbestos cleanup additionally says that testing on the site appears to have been done properly, which he concluded after being asked by the Register to view the two environmental studies used for site renovations.

But an official from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, which enforces federal environmental protection standards, said investigators will revisit the site in light of the asbestos allegations. The state environmental official told The Des Moines Register last week that some construction work did in fact begin improperly, which he described as a minor infraction that resulted in “a serious discussion” with the contractors, but no formal fines or actions.

In addition, the Register’s investigation into the allegations shows that none of the three state agencies involved in reviewing the complaint filed by RedNet Environmental Services has requested a copy of or compared two key reports that reach different conclusions about the presence of asbestos in the former Younkers building.

One of those reports, written by Iowa Environmental Services, led an owner of RedNet, Rob Knudsen, to conclude the current situation at the former Younkers building is “no different or maybe even worse than the Equitable Building with Bob Knapp.”

Knapp, a prominent Iowa developer, was sentenced in 2011 to 41 months in prison for his involvement in a conspiracy to ignore federal asbestos regulations in redevelopment of another downtown Des Moines building.

The 106-year-old former Younkers building, now known as the Flagship Building, is expected to reopen in 2014 with 120 apartments and is billed as a cornerstone in Des Moines’ efforts to revitalize Walnut Street.

An attorney for Hansen Construction, a Johnston-based company in charge of renovations, said he believes that RedNet’s asbestos allegations are a result of that company’s failure to secure a work agreement for the renovation project.

“Everything” is inaccurate in RedNet’s Jan. 29 complaint, attorney Jeffrey Stone of Des Moines told the Register. “There’s not one accurate statement in that letter as far as the allegations go.”

RedNet’s three-page letter to state and federal regulators alleges multiple violations or unethical practices committed by Hansen Construction. The allegations include:

• That workers on the site are being told to throw away materials presumed to have asbestos without any testing.

• That personal air monitoring is not being done nor is it being posted for people working at or visiting the site to see.

• And that more than $120,000 worth of scrap metal has been removed by Hansen employees which “would be virtually impossible not to create an asbestos and lead disturbance.”

The complaint also includes the July 26 letter Knudsen sent to a Hansen official alleging disparities between two asbestos surveys — one by Iowa Environmental Services and another by New Horizons Enterprises.

One disparity noted by Knudsen was that the Iowa Environmental report showed asbestos in drywall on the structure’s fifth and six floors. The second report — the one being used for ongoing asbestos work during the renovations — did not indicate any presence of asbestos in those areas, Knudsen said.

Knudsen told the Register the differences between the reports would equate to at least $200,000 in differences in cleanup costs.

“At the end of the day, this is about making sure people are safe,” said Knudsen, who also expressed concerns about lead abatement at the site. “Lead will make you sick but asbestos will kill you. And there’s a 15- or 20-year latency period where you have no idea where you were exposed to it.”

Stone, the attorney for Hansen Construction, acknowledged differences in the reports. But he said the owner of the building, Alexander Co. of Madison, Wis., has reconciled the differences with further tests and concluded some asbestos findings in the first survey were inaccurate.

“You have to know about those testing procedures and the margin of error,” he said. “You could have the same company go out there twice and probably get different results when it’s that close.”

However Tom Wuehr, a DNR official who helps enforce federal asbestos standards, said Friday that in light of the differences brought to his attention by the Register, he will return to the site this week to further investigate the issue.

“Certainly they are in possession of both reports and they need to be going off of both of them,” Wuehr said. “Because if one company finds something and another doesn’t, that doesn’t mean you ignore it. Once you have a positive you have a positive. Period. You can’t test your way out of it.”

The second environmental survey contains far more testing than the first one, said Brent Kynoch, the managing director of the Environmental Information Association, a group based in Maryland focused on health hazards in buildings, specifically asbestos. He said he did not see any indication that Hansen Construction has done anything improper, judging from his review of the complaints from RedNet and both reports provided to him by the Register.

“Frankly, I read these reports and I think the whistle-blower has some bad blood,” Kynoch said of RedNet’s complaints. “They lost a job, and they’re ticked off about it. If in fact they are as knowledgeable about stuff as they appear to be then they should know that the New Horizons report is significantly better than the Iowa Environmental Services report.”

Interviews or documents obtained by the Register show that investigations made by three agencies — an Iowa labor commission inspector enforcing U.S. Department of Labor rules, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and the city of Des Moines — did not compare the two asbestos and lead reports. A fourth review from the state’s economic development authority simply adopted the findings of the city without any review of its own, records show.

Iowa’s labor commissioner, Michael Mauro, criticized the allegations made by RedNet, Knudsen and his wife, Lynn, who wrote the complaint about Hansen Construction.

“The charges they made were very straightforward, direct and — to be honest with you — defaming,” said Mauro, who helps oversee guidelines established by the federal Occupational Safety & Health Administration.

Mauro said a state inspector spent portions of two days on the site and reviewed air tests that did not show signs of elevated asbestos exposures.

“We responded to the charges and got our guys to go out there and take a look. Based on what they’ve seen, there were no violations,” he said.

The DNR’s Wuehr told the Register that Hansen employees did begin some construction work before an asbestos abatement contractor was on site a few months ago. Hansen employees did get into some material that had asbestos, Wuehr said. He said, however, that the amount of material that was improperly handled was “very low” and that no fines or penalties were assessed.

“I went there and at that time we got things kind of straightened out as far as slowing everything down and making sure the workers don’t get ahead of the asbestos abatement contractors,” Wuehr said.

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