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Idaho Transportation Department to pay $52K in fines for asbestos error

The Idaho Transportation Department has agreed to pay nearly $52,000 in fines for demolishing a Priest River office building that was riddled with asbestos, without taking precautions to keep the cancer-causing fibers from spreading.

The Jachetta Building, which formerly housed insurance and law offices, was torn down last November. It was the second time in less than a year ITD had made such a mistake. The agency agreed to pay $55,800 in fines to the Environmental Protection Agency for demolishing an asbestos-laden building in Rigby, in southeastern Idaho, in June 2014.

“Despite assurance from ITD that they will closely follow asbestos regulations and protect their workers, we are still issuing penalties on what should be straightforward project management,” said a frustrated Ed Kowalski, director of the EPA’s Office of Enforcement in Seattle. “We’re confident that our enforcement and compliance program will ultimately help them to realize the value of doing the right thing.”

Only after receiving a public complaint about the Priest River demolition did the agency hire an asbestos consultant, who found materials with a range of 2 percent to 55 percent asbestos in the debris pile.

The site, at the intersection of Highways 2 and 57, is in the middle of town, surrounded by businesses, homes, and less than a mile from Priest River Junior High School and an elementary school.

Federal law requires owners of buildings containing asbestos to conduct inspections and notify the EPA before demolition; ITD did neither. The EPA, which has regulated asbestos since the 1970s to protect public health, says release of asbestos fibers can cause lung cancer, mesothelioma and asbestosis.

“Asbestos is nothing to play around with,” said former state Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest River, a longtime area resident. “Several people in town were very concerned about that, because any time you do demolition you create a dust cloud. … You can’t just pay fines in lieu of doing the proper demolition.”

After the belated inspection, ITD hired a certified asbestos cleanup contractor to remove two truckloads of contaminated debris last December.

ITD agreed to pay $51,986 in fines within 30 days.

ITD has had numerous environmental violations over the years. It was investigated by the EPA for violations relating to work on the Sand Creek Byway in Sandpoint in 2009. It was the target of an EPA lawsuit in federal court in 2006 for highway work that dumped tons of sediment into Lake Coeur d’Alene’s Mica Bay. And it conceded that construction on U.S. Highway 95 inflicted serious damage on 4 acres of wetlands and polluted Sand Creek in 1994, and paid penalties.

During construction of Interstate 90 in 1990, ITD lost a bulldozer and earth mover in Lake Coeur d’Alene in a road collapse; both remain in the water.

“We share the EPA’s concern regarding workers, supervisors and public at large in terms of health risks posed by asbestos,” ITD spokesman Reed Hollinshead said in a statement Thursday.

He said the agency is working on a policy to ensure that all buildings are inspected for asbestos prior to demolition.

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