Why Cedar Rapids is footing $2 million bill to remove asbestos

Sides differ on why asbestos still is there

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CEDAR RAPIDS — The city of Cedar Rapids is spending $2 million to remove asbestos left behind years ago at the old Sinclair meatpacking plant, prompting questions about why taxpayers are left to foot the bill.

Backhoes on Wednesday dug through rubble, sorting slabs of old foundation and other asbestos-contaminated debris in the center of the 30-acre site at the bend in the Cedar River, just south of the New Bohemia District.

“The building was demolished and put inside its basement and covered up with fill,” Rob Davis, the city’s flood control manager, told the City Council in May when discussing the $2 million contract.

The remnants are the last traces of 1871-founded T.M. Sinclair plant, once one of the area’s largest employers. The sprawling complex housed more than 100 buildings — many used for slaughtering cattle, sheep, hens and other animals — and is a landmark in the city’s history.

Under city ownership since 2007, the plant has been leveled to bare earth. Millions of dollars already have been spent on clean up. Yet asbestos remains, and the city is on the hook as it rehabilitates the old brownfield.

“Do we have any recourse on previous owners who didn’t abate the asbestos properly?” City Council member Ralph Russell asked at the May meeting.

The City Council approved the contract — asbestos removal accounts for $1.74 million of the $2 million contract — with D.W. Zinser of Walford.

Zinser is the same contractor who cleared the Sinclair site after the 2008 flood and two fires in 2009.

The contract approved in May is part of a $15 million, four-phase project to add a flood levee, a pump station and a detention basin and to restore 10 acres for redevelopment at 1800 Third St. SE. Work is underway and should be complete in November.

The city had to act fast to make use of $12.5 million in federal Community Development Block Grant dollars for disaster relief earmarked for the site. The money expires in November.

Still, questions remain.

Why doesn’t the previous owner bear responsibility if a building was improperly demolished? And why is the city paying the same contractor millions of dollars twice in seven years to clear asbestos from the same site?

While some answers exist, many records since have been destroyed, leaving a “murky” history of what exactly happened, as one official put it.

“It was improperly disposed of,” Davis told the council. “It should have been taken to a landfill back then. Instead it was buried there on site. We are removing it to take it to the proper location, which is a landfill.”

This week, Davis backed off the May statement, saying he doesn’t know if anything improper occurred. He said remnants were buried over and mixed together, which has made cleanup that much more time consuming — but he doesn’t know exactly when it happened or who did it.

“I would not characterize it as anyone tried to hide it,” he said. “Maybe fill dirt was put there so someone didn’t fall into an open hole. I am not sure when happened.”

Davis said the city is responsible for the cleanup because it bought the property in “as is, where is” condition, and this includes possible additional costs.

The Zinser contract includes a “healthy contingency for any underground contamination we might find,” he said.

Jim Piersall, a lawyer who is part of a local ownership group called Central States Warehousing that owned the property before the city, defended its actions.

“The statement that Rob Davis made at the City Council meeting that the building was buried by us is 100 percent not true,” Piersall said.

Sitting dormant after Farmstead Foods closed in 1990, Central States purchased the property through U.S. Bankruptcy Court in 1993. This was a partnership of Piersall, John Parks of Marion, Gary Speicher of Cedar Rapids, Jayne Intlekofer of Monticello and Cathy Intlekofer.

Central States paid $275,000, but $200,000 was held in escrow until the site was cleaned of asbestos and debris to meet state and federal environmental standards, according to Gazette archives. Central States was required to cover any additional costs above $200,000.

Piersall estimated in 1995 Central States had spent $280,000 to remove almost a quarter-million pounds of asbestos, and total asbestos cleanup costs eventually would top $1.3 million.

Future inspections found asbestos but no imminent health hazards, and the escrow was released. Central States only was obligated to clear the immediate hazard, Piersall clarified this week.

In the mid-2000s, public and private sector leaders wanted to redevelop what had deteriorated into an “eyesore” into a new Cedar Bend district. Former Mayor Kay Halloran, while campaigning in the 2000s, threatened to use eminent domain to condemn the property, according to Gazette reports.

About 20 businesses and 100 employees were using the site as Central States was demolishing several buildings.

They did it by the books, Piersall said. They secured a city demolition permit, notified the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and contracted asbestos removal and disposal at the landfill before demolition.

Federal regulations require asbestos be removed and hauled away when a building is demolished. Once desired for its resistance to heat and fire, asbestos now is heavily regulated as a health hazard known to cause cancer and mesothelioma.

However, the roof of one building — the remnants of which are being removed today — was caving in, and it was too dangerous to remove asbestos before demolition, Piersall said. They planned to clear debris afterward, but at the same time the city began getting serious about purchasing the property, he said.

“We decided, Why, if we were going to sell it, why would we spend all of the money to clear it out, when the city was going to buy it ‘as is’?” Piersall said, adding the city was aware of the remnants.

The city struck a deal in 2007 to purchase the property “as is” for $4 million, of which the Hall-Perrine Foundation paid $2 million. The city acknowledged responsibility for removing 4,500 tons of debris containing asbestos and covering an estimated $400,000 in environmental cleanup costs.

The next year, the 2008 flood rendered the site unsafe, and two fires destroyed much of what was left in 2009, triggering a federally sponsored fast-track, disaster-related demolition.

D.W. Zinser had the $7.75 million contract to demolish the buildings, clear the site and properly dispose of the asbestos in 2010. The contract called for the “complete removal of all subsurface concrete structures associated with the site. This includes concrete footings, foundations, slabs, piers, etc.”

The previous owner “demolished part of the building and part of the plant with asbestos in it,” said Dave Zinser, president of the excavating company. “I’m not saying they didn’t do it right or wrong, but they didn’t do all of the environmental work they needed to do.”

Zinser inquired about removing the remnants of the demolished building, but was denied because it wasn’t in the scope of the federal aid. Davis agreed it was not Zinser’s responsibility in 2010.

Tom Wuehr, unit leader for compliance, asbestos abatement and demolition projects at the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, said the agency caught wind of the leftover building when Zinser asked for approval to remove it as part of its work in 2010.

Wuehr said the demolition would have been a violation if the building was not sampled for asbestos and the asbestos wasn’t removed — but he said he never had any evidence to prove a violation. The agency only keeps records for 10 years, he said, so it is impossible to verify the accounts of what happened through a paper trail

As to responsibility for cleanup that would be between the city and the previous owner, he said.

“The story has always been murky,” he said.

l Comments: (319) 339-3177; brian.morelli@thegazette.com

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