Our View: Airport fiasco could have been avoided

March 14, 2007 11:00 pm

State fines leveled at the county, a Crescent City business and SkyWest Airlines for the improper removal of tiles containing asbestos at the county are bad enough. But what really is bothersome is the on-the-record statement by county officials that they didn't feel any responsibility for the safe removal of materials containing asbestos.

Between Jan. 4-8, carpeting and floor tiles were removed from the airport terminal during a remodeling project. The California Division of Occupational Safety and Health later found that the county did not determine, before work began, the presence, location and quantity of asbestos in the materials to be removed. During remodeling, the work area was not properly enclosed, and employees in the facility were not informed that they might be exposed to asbestos. And it turns out that asbestos was indeed in the tiles.

Interestingly, county officials who met with a Cal/OSHA investigator wanted to wash their hands of responsibility. "This carpet replacement project was initiated and paid for by a private funding source (Bill Stamps Jr.) and the county representatives present did not feel responsible for any aspects of this project since the county did not put out a bid for the contractor doing this work," according to the Cal/OSHA report. Five county representatives were present, including Airport Manager Jim Bernard.

As owner of the terminal and an employer of some personnel there, the county definitely bears some responsibility.

Indeed, the whole matter might have been avoided if the county fulfilled its initial obligation, which was to ensure that the material to be removed was tested for asbestos before any work was allowed to begin. That's simply state law – any public building constructed before 1980 could contain asbestos and must be tested. This obligation does not diminish simply because someone else is paying for the work, anymore than a landlord would cease to be responsible for his property if a renter made modifications that resulted in building code violations.

Mistakes do happen, and there are plenty of parties that made them during the terminal remodeling. But the chain of them could have been avoided with a stronger sense of obligation from the county.