Heather Dickinson watched in alarm last year as a man in a backhoe tore down the one-story Southeast Portland house next door, sending a plume of grayish-brown dust above neighboring rooftops.
The dust spread everywhere, creeping into Dickinson’s house, caking her home’s exterior walls, and billowing into the sky, she said. Three men, in addition to the man in the backhoe, were in the thick of the demolition wearing no respirator masks. Dickinson told her 8- and 6-year-old boys, who were mesmerized by the destruction, to come inside.
What she didn’t know and environmental regulators later learned: The contractor demolished the house with hundreds of square feet of asbestos-laden flooring and insulation inside.
With few exceptions, Oregon regulations require licensed contractors to remove asbestos before any demolition. Federal regulations says workers who might inhale cancer-causing asbestos fibers must wear protective gear such as hooded polyethylene coveralls and respirators.
The men working by hand at the Southeast Portland demolition site were likely exposed to asbestos fibers, a state workplace safety official said.
The case is unusual only in that regulators found out about it.
Weak regulatory oversight has allowed contractors to tear down hundreds of homes in Portland without properly removing asbestos inside, an investigation by The Oregonian/OregonLive has found.
The agency responsible for protecting the public from asbestos, the Department of Environmental Quality, set the stage for many of these hazardous demolitions. The department has known for years that its rules aren’t strong enough to keep people safe during home demolitions. Yet the state backed away from imposing even modest measures to strengthen the rules in 2002 after the construction industry complained.
Potentially thousands of homes have come down with asbestos inside since then. The department estimates the number is 650 homes annually statewide.
Washington agencies have maintained substantially stricter rules than Oregon for almost two decades despite industry grumbling.
“It’s appalling. Most people think of DEQ, they think of it as a green organization,” said Kimberly Koehler, an activist with the Eastmoreland Neighborhood Association. “But as a matter of fact they’re not looking out for our interests.”
The agency, in a written statement, said it’s up to building owners to remove asbestos before demolishing a home.
The asbestos issue is pressing in Portland, where an infill boom is prompting developers to raze hundreds of old houses likely to contain the cancer-causing substance. The number of demolition permits issued in 2014 was higher than at any time during the past decade.
State oversight has been particularly toothless in the region that needs it most. Oregon has for most of the last three years left vacant its only asbestos inspector position in the region that includes Portland.
In 2012 and 2013, the office that oversees Portland issued zero asbestos-related fines. The Oregonian/OregonLive estimates 200 homes were demolished with asbestos inside in that time.
An exceedingly popular material for much of the 20th Century because of its durability and fire resistance, asbestos was used in thousands of products. Today, it’s often found in tiles, vinyl flooring, ceilings, cement shingles and pipe insulation of homes built or remodeled before the 1970s.
Industry experts and state environmental regulators say because almost every home facing demolition is at least that old, 80 to 90 percent can be expected to have asbestos.
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