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Housing agency tells EPA it'll comply on asbestos

Buffalo's housing authority, accused of violating the Clean Air Act and potentially facing huge fines, is promising to finish the asbestos removal and tear down the vacant towers at Kensington Heights.

The abatement and demolition plans are at the heart of the authority's response to a federal compliance order that implicates it in the failed asbestos removal at the public housing development.

"It's a very positive first step," said Michael J. Basile, spokesman for the local office of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Basile declined to comment on the details of the plan but indicated that it appears to include what the agency wanted from the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority.

The EPA's compliance order, issued last month, charges the authority with several violations of the federal Clean Air Act and could result in fines of up to $37,500 a day for each violation.

The order also requires the authority to remove the asbestos that remains in the six towers and demolish the 17-acre complex.

"It is the authority's intent to complete the job 100 percent," said Adam W. Perry, a lawyer for the authority.

"All I can say is that we think we've provided them with what they wanted," Perry said of the EPA.

The authority received a $5 million state grant to demolish Kensington Heights, and Perry confirmed that some of that money is still available. He also indicated that the authority is prepared to find other sources of funding.

"There are a lot of unanswered questions," said authority board member Joseph Mascia, an outspoken critic of the authority's oversight at Kensington Heights.

Mascia said the authority has about $3 million of the $5 million left, but it's not clear whether that's enough to finish the asbestos removal and tear down the towers.

"And what's going to happen with the fines?" Mascia said of the financial penalties the EPA could still impose as part of its order. "Where are we getting that money?"

The authority is hoping to avoid those fines, and Perry was quick to note that it submitted its compliance plan days before the Monday deadline the EPA imposed. "They did respond in a timely fashion," Basile said.

The EPA spokesman said there's a sense of urgency, but not because of an existing public health threat. Recent EPA tests found that asbestos levels inside the towers exceed federal standards but that levels outside the complex do not.

The allegations against the authority came just weeks after the federal indictment of nine individuals and two contractors on felony charges related to the asbestos-removal project.

The 23-count indictment charges the contractors and individuals, including three inspectors -- one from the state, two from the city -- with improperly removing and disposing of asbestos at the complex.

The charges against the authority are similar but are administrative, not criminal.

An on-site inspection by EPA officials in August led to the compliance order and the potential fines. The authority is charged with violating the agency's National Emission Standards for Asbestos.

By all accounts, the asbestos-removal work at Kensington Heights was never completed, which is one of the reasons the EPA wants the authority to move quickly in adopting a plan for removing the asbestos that remains. "Everything they wanted is in the plan," Perry said of the EPA.

Kensington Heights, a symbol of decay and abandonment for three decades, was targeted for demolition two years ago. Tearing down the eight-story towers was the first step in the authority's plan for a new $105 million retirement community.

One of the first steps in the demolition was the removal of an estimated 63,000 square feet of asbestos in each of the towers, a job that eventually was awarded to Johnson Contracting of Buffalo.

The indictment alleges that from June 2009 to January 2010, Johnson and two of its managers instructed workers to dump asbestos down holes cut in the floors of each building. They also are charged with failing to wet the asbestos and leaving it in open, unsecured containers.

email: pfairbanks@buffnews.com

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