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With Kensington Heights asbestos fiasco in mind, AM&A’s project needs close scrutiny

In a community that has learned the hard way to be wary of asbestos abatement projects, there is something vaguely unsettling about the plans of a private investment group to perform that delicate task in the enormous downtown building it recently bought.

Landco H&L of Flushing, Queens, plans to turn the vacant AM&A’s department store on Main Street into a hotel complex for visiting Chinese tourists. It is an exciting prospect for a number of reasons, including the productive reuse of the long-empty, prominently located building and the prospect of regularly attracting visitors to downtown Buffalo.

The first big task is to rid the building of asbestos, a known carcinogen. It’s a common enough undertaking in the reuse or even the demolition of many older buildings, but it also needs to be done carefully and in compliance with all safety regulations. The denser the population, the greater the potential risk to the neighborhood. In a city, the consequences of error can be significant.

Landco has its own people trained in asbestos removal, and it plans to complete the project itself. No doubt, that will help to keep costs down, even as it frustrates local contractors who had hoped to bid on the work. It may yet hire local companies to help with what is a big job, but that is far from certain.

It was less than a year ago that Buffalo was dealing with criminality in a large-scale asbestos removal project. Nine convictions resulted, including the contractors doing the work and even the inspectors who were supposed to be overseeing it. With that history in mind, the AM&A’s project raises yellow flags that Landco should acknowledge and that city inspectors should also be prepared to honor.

The problems occurred at the former Kensington Heights housing complex, a long-vacant grouping of six high-rise buildings that city leaders wanted to tear down in favor of a retirement community.

But through a combination of corner-cutting by the contractor and inadequate training of inspectors, asbestos was released into the East Side community, and also left within the structures. It could have caused lethal health problems but, fortunately, appears not to have done so.

Nine businesses, businessmen and public safety inspectors were convicted of federal crimes. Two other firms avoided charges after they shut down. Buffalo learned – or should have learned – a hard lesson. Asbestos removal is painstaking and labor-intensive. It must be done carefully to protect the workers, the neighborhood and future residents.

Inspectors in any asbestos removal project have to be well-trained and capable of halting the project if the work is not being done according to all regulations. All such projects must be handled professionally and with appropriate safeguards in place.

With its employees appropriately trained, we presume Landco workers know what they are doing. What is more, it is fair to expect that the company wouldn’t approach this work in a way that could put the health of the future hotel’s guests at risk.

But it was also fair, at one point, to believe that the Kensington project was in good hands. The contractors knew the rules and, as a fail-safe, the inspectors would be there to enforce them.

It didn’t happen.

Downtown residents and workers aren’t any more valuable than those who lived or worked near the Kensington project, but the population is more dense and that multiplies the potential consequences of error. The city and company need to work together closely on this project and, if necessary for its safe completion, bring in other contractors certified to do this work.

The health of all concerned and the value of the project to Buffalo require nothing less.