The demolition of the former Tompkins County Library building at the corner of Cayuga and Court streets is slated to start Monday, Dec. 3, despite public outcry over planned asbestos abatement procedures.
The demolition was ready to start mid-October but concerns from nearby residents about public safety delayed the project. Multiple elements of the building contain asbestos, including fireproofing materials, flooring and roofing. Exposure to asbestos can cause mesothelioma and asbestosis, an inflammatory lung condition, according to the National Cancer Institute.
Initially, the project team planned to remove all interior Regulated Asbestos Contaminated Materials before beginning demolition work. Delta Engineers, Architects, and Land Surveyors, the firm developer Travis Hyde has contracted to monitor asbestos removal, filed a plan in May 2018 detailing a contained abatement process. If a contained abatement were carried out, RACMs would be cleaned within an enclosed area sealed with negative air pressure.
However, the team switched from a “contained” to a “controlled” abatement plan after the building was condemned in September. Following a report from a structural engineer, the director of code enforcement for the city's Building Division, Mike Niechwiadowicz, concluded it would be unsafe for workers to carry out abatement work inside the building.
During a controlled abatement RACMs are removed during demolition work while the site is continuously sprayed with water. Spraying is meant to prevent airborne contamination, but water must then be contained and filtered to prevent contamination of groundwater or soil.
The switch from a contained to a controlled abatement has brought out vocal opposition from area residents and activists. Nevertheless, Travis Hyde appears ready to move forward with abatement and demolition work on Monday Dec. 3.
Contained abatement is the gold standard when it comes to asbestos removal and is required by New York code unless a building is condemned. After a presentation about abatement work by project developers and engineers at a Nov. 8 community meeting, Mayor Svante Myrick summed up by saying contained abatement is the safest procedure, even if controlled abatement is a safe procedure.
Contained abatement, however, would require workers to be inside the Old Library building for six to eight weeks before it is demolished. Travis Hyde contracted a structural engineering firm, Ryan Biggs/Clark Davis Engineering and Surveying, to inspect the building’s safety.
On Aug. 8, an engineer from Ryan Biggs submitted a report to the City of Ithaca’s Building Division stating the building’s roof deck was deteriorated. “Overall, the existing metal deck is a hazard in its current condition,” the report reads. The report further concludes the roof could not be safely shored up. “Temporary stabilization of the roof deck does not seem like a viable option … Doing this preparatory work would potentially put personnel at risk of falling debris from deck failure,” it reads.
The Aug. 8 engineering report said the building could be “safely accessed until the first snowfall in 2018,” but did not specifically state whether the building was safe for interior abatement work.
Before determining whether to condemn the building as unsafe, Mike Niechwiadowicz said he needed clarification. Reached by email, Niechwiadowicz said he reached out to Ryan Biggs for additional information after receiving the Aug. 8 report.
“Since the initial report was not clear about working inside the building I asked a simple question – is it safe to work inside the building? I did not dictate to Ryan Biggs how to respond, I simply asked a question,” Niechwiadowicz said.
On Aug. 20, Ryan Biggs submitted a revised engineering report stating, “Personnel should also not be working under the roof deck given the obvious deck failures and rusted metal deck debris observed where it had fallen to the first floor. It is my understanding that abatement work would involve removing the ceilings and utilities below the metal deck. Doing this work would potentially put personnel at risk of falling debris from deck failure.”
Niechwiadowicz subsequently condemned the building on the basis that it was unsafe for workers, filing a condemnation order on Sept. 4. According to New York Department of Labor rules regulating asbestos abatements, the building’s condemnation gave Travis Hyde the go-ahead to carry out a controlled abatement.
A slide at the Nov. 8 community meeting showed air monitoring locations around the Old Library demolition site. (Devon Magliozzi/The Ithaca Voice)
In a demolition fact sheet initially shared on Oct. 16 and re-circulated to the mayor and members of the public on Nov. 27, Frost Travis states, “Commencing conventional abatement would put abatement workers in harm’s way due to a very unstable roof structure.”
The fact sheet explains RACMs will be removed from the building site on covered trucks while water is continuously sprayed to suppress dust. Water will be collected and filtered before being pumped into the storm drain, according to the release. Gorick Construction will carry out abatement work, with Delta Engineers overseeing air monitoring and code compliance.
Many community members continue to voice concerns about public safety around the project. Since October, about 750 people have signed a letter circulated by Walter Hang, president of Toxics Targeting, calling on the mayor to stop the controlled demolition. That letter, together with public comments at a series of three community meetings, slowed down the demolition process.
Following the Nov. 8 community meeting, the city contracted a third-party structural engineer, Greg Dende, to inspect the building and re-assess whether workers could safely carry out a contained abatement or shore up the roof deck.
The engineer’s report, however, reiterated the conclusions stated in the Aug. 20 report by Ryan Biggs. In an email to Frost Travis on Nov. 21, Myrick quoted the report’s conclusion that the building poses “a significant safety hazard” to workers.
“Regrettably, the City will be unable to lift the condemnation order on this building,” Myrick wrote.
The second engineering firm’s report did not satisfy all objections to the controlled abatement, however. Hang submitted a letter to the New York State Attorney General’s Office on Nov. 20 asking to halt the controlled demolition pending an investigation into the building’s condemnation. Suzy Kramer, a neighbor of the library building, sent a letter to the Attorney General in support of Hang’s request.
Hang and Kramer allege Niechwiadowicz may have improperly condemned the building based on “false statements or instruments.” Citing the Aug. 8 Ryan Biggs report and revised Aug. 20 report, Hang wrote, “The two assessments are almost exactly word for word except that they reach totally opposite conclusions based on the same site inspection.”
Based on the statement in the Aug. 8 version that the building “can still be accessed until the first snow fall,” which does not appear in the Aug. 20 version, Hang argues a contained abatement should have been carried out between August and November. He alleges the conclusion in the Aug. 20 report, that abatement work “would potentially put personnel at risk,” is unsupported by evidence and “deeply troubling to say the least.”
The Attorney General's Office did not respond to a request for comment about whether they are investigating the Old Library matter.
In response to the allegations, Niechwiadowicz said by email, “I have been falsely accused of issuing a condemnation order to expedite demolition of the building and make it less expensive for Travis Hyde to do so,” adding, “My goal all along was to determine if the building was safe and was it safe to do construction work in the building.”
Niechwiadowicz reiterated that the state Department of Labor regulates asbestos removal, while the city’s Building Division regulates structural safety. “I condemn a building only if it is unsafe, not for anything to do with asbestos,” he said.
Once demolition work begins Dec. 3, Delta Engineering will be responsible for monitoring site safety and ensuring compliance with federal, state and local regulations.
The site will be continuously sprayed with water, including when temperatures are below freezing, the team said. A fence has been put up around the site to control access to it, and state regulations require RACMs to be contained with plastic sheeting during storage and transport. Delta will test air samples on site and upwind and downwind from the site, according to the fact sheet circulated by Travis.
In his email acknowledging that a controlled abatement could move forward, Myrick wrote,“I am told that State Department of Labor records reflect over one hundred controlled demolitions of this sort in the past decade in Tompkins County. Nonetheless, your intended demolition has generated a scope of public concern that should compel you to leave no stone unturned in the name of public safety.”
In reply, Travis wrote, “We could have started demolition immediately upon receipt of the demolition permit. Instead, we agreed to the additional preparatory step of inviting the city’s engineering consultant to peer review the findings of the structural engineer that we engaged to evaluate the structural integrity of the old library. While this has delayed our project commencement by two weeks, that is not our primary concern.”