Mike Hoss with additional reporting by Mike Perlstein
NEW ORLEANS – Two contractors signed on with Touro Infirmary to gut the inside of the old St. Charles medical office building on St. Charles Ave. to make room for new clinic offices for LSU’s health faculty.
One contractor says the other, his boss, was mishandling asbestos and possibly putting the public at risk. He also says the hospital and the state Dept. of Environmental Quality knew about it.
Contractor David Woolverton was to pull out everything in the building not covered in asbestos. He was hired by a company called GP Glynagin, who was supposed to remove all asbestos material.
Asbestos is a fire proofing insulation, used decades ago, that has been found to cause certain types of cancer. It has to be removed following strict DEQ guidelines.
But Woolverton said that didn't happen.
"This isn't right, the way you’re doing this,” he recalls telling workers. "You wouldn't believe this. It was all day every day.”
In a lawsuit, Woolverton claims there were multiple environmental violations removing the asbestos by GP Glynagin, so he started taking pictures of the company that hired him. Woolverton says sometimes asbestos liquids were put into a funnel down into the sewer system, instead of in sealed, labeled clear bags.
And when the pressure-washed liquids fell down onto the first floor, Woolverton said, Glynagin pumped the material outside the building and later into a pipe, then back into the sewer system.
Woolverton said he notified Touro hospital officials of what he saw.
"He said, ‘Look, just deal with it. Just do your job and leave,’” Woolverton recalled. “He said, ‘This job has a really tight time schedule. You're slowing it down with your foolishness.’"
In the lawsuit, Woolverton claims the asbestos removal created an unsafe work environment for his employees, so he kept taking pictures. DEQ says a building has to be sealed when removing asbestos, but Woolverton says GP Glynagin did so with a pressure washer and the windows open.
"I went to the hospital and said ,‘This is getting worse.’ I said, ‘Now not only are the people in the building exposed to this. You're exposing the general public,’” he said.
Woolverton says Touro officials again told him to forget it and get back to work. That’s when Woolverton says he saw the liquid material, taken from inside the building, dripping out of the dumpster and into the storm drain system.
The DEQ mandates the dumpsters used for asbestos removal be leak tight.
“I was shocked,” Woolverton said. “That’s why I took pictures of it, because when I told the hospital what they were doing, the hospital said ‘No, they're not.’”
Without telling him anything about the hospital or the contractors involved, Eyewitness News showed the pictures to Bill Scott, an environmental engineer for 30 years.
"That’s poor practice, whether it's asbestos or not,” Scott said. “But certainly, if we have asbestos residue there, that’s illegal.”
Scott said open windows, pumping anything outside the building and specifically not using leak tight containers are all red flags.
Woolverton said this all happened over a five-month period, between March and July 2010. He said when the hospital failed to act, he called the DEQ in Baton Rouge.
But the DEQ says it has no official complaint from Woolverton. Yet Woolverton's phone records show that, in April, he called the DEQ and talked for 16 minutes. In May, he spoke to someone there for another 14 minutes.
There were also several other calls to a DEQ investigator. Each time, Woolverton says he complained about the way Glynagin was removing the asbestos and wanted action, but DEQ spokesman Rodney Mallet says Woolverton called "only to ask questions and never filed a formal complaint.”
"They can say whatever they want to say, but they were called and chose not to come on this site,” said Woolverton.
Confused as to why he wasn’t getting answers from both Touro and DEQ, Woolverton showed the pictures to Carlton Dufrechou, the former Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation director, who happens to live in his neighborhood.
"It was kind of horrific stuff,” Dufrechou said. “It's not only illegal, it’s just frankly stupid."
So Dufrechou says he called some people he knew, who were associated with the state.
“And from what they told me…(it) looked like somebody is roadblocking this...which is tragic. The message I got was pretty much they were told to stop,” Dufrechou said.
Dufrechou, who is now general manager of the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, said that surprised him.
"You know, I worked with state agencies for a while. It was very, very disappointing," he said.
It was not surprising to Woolverton, who felt this project had been pushed through to get the job done quickly.
“It’s been, from day one, a huge cover-up,” he said.
But on July 22, months after he started calling DEQ, Woolverton says he called State Police, who then called the DEQ. And the next day, a DEQ investigator arrived, but the asbestos removal had basically been completed at that point.
The investigator would not accept the more than 60 pictures David Woolverton took, but took some of her own and took two ground samples for testing. Those tests came back positive for asbestos. One spot was 7 percent, another 5 percent. The DEQ says anything above 0 percent is a violation.
"It’s been terrible. I mean, you try to do what you think is correct…I mean, it’s your obligation…you see someone doing something wrong like this, that’s hazardous,” Woolverton said.
The attorney for GP Glynagin declined an interview but said his client did nothing wrong and said that Woolverton is a disgruntled contractor with an ax to grind, because he didn't finish the job and didn't get paid.
“These photographs were taken four months before I didn't get paid, so you can’t take photographs after the fact,” Woolverton said.
Finding four civil violations, the DEQ continues to look into this issue. Last week, it issued a compliance order and notice of potential penalty to GP Glynagin, giving the company 30 days to respond. GP Glynagin could face $32,000 for each day of violation.
Touro Infirmary also declined an on-camera interview, saying in a statement that "We fully participated in the investigation and required proper and safe methods for asbestos removal.”
There are lawsuits over the money GP Glynagin sued Woolverton for, for allegedly not finishing the work. Woolverton counter-sued, saying he did complete the job.
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