Dembrow Works to Require Asbestos Inspections in House Demolitions

Concerns about the alarming rate of house demolitions in Portland revealed loopholes in environmental laws that allowed these older structures to be torn down without any inspection as to whether neighbors are exposed to airborne carcinogens like asbestos and lead.

Vintage houses all across Portland are being razed at an alarming rate, raising the possibility that residents could be exposed to airborne asbestos or lead paint.

Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, has stepped into the fray with a bill that will require developers who tear down houses to get the house inspected by the Department of Environmental Quality for asbestos, and abate the hazard if found, before doing the tear down.

Senate Bill 705 closes a loophole that requires remodelers to check for asbestos and remove it when they improve houses, but requires nothing of developers who demolish a house entirely.

“I think it was just unanticipated that we would have these demolitions,” Dembrow told The Lund Report. “We certainly didn’t see that at the scale we’re seeing now.”

The bill passed 5-0 out of the Senate Health Committee on Monday, a surprise bipartisan consensus after Dembrow’s other environmental goals, such as tasking DEQ with phasing out dirty diesel engines failed to get traction. (Dembrow was able to get a task force approved by the Senate Environment Committee to study solutions to the diesel pollution problem.)

SB 705 started as a modest piece of legislation that merely asked the Oregon Health Authority to examine the impact of asbestos and lead paint in house demolitions, and report its findings to the Legislature by 2017.

But legislators on the Senate Health Committee, including Sen. Laurie Monnes Anderson, D-Gresham, were alarmed at public testimony on the problem from John Sandie of United Neighborhoods for Reform, and asked Dembrow for more rigorous legislation. “I want something that has some teeth in it. This doesn’t do anything,” she said.

Dembrow said the discussion exposed a loophole in the law on asbestos inspections, and also provided an easy opportunity for the Legislature to ask DEQ to expand the scope of something it’s already doing.

“This really strikes a nerve of what’s happening in North and Northeast Portland,” said Sen. Chip Shields, D-Portland, whose district borders Dembrow’s district to the west, and includes the city’s historic black community, which has faced the brunt of Portland’s rapid gentrification. As the population shifts from black families to white singles and couples with fewer children, the newcomers have opted for newer and denser housing over the tidy, modest bungalows the area had been known for.

Sandie told the Senate Health Committee earlier this month that the city of Portland approved the demolition of 750 houses in the past three years. “Since most of these houses were built prior to 1950, there is no doubt that asbestos and lead-based paint existed at a majority of these sites.”

The older homes were built at a time when asbestos was a common material both in siding and insulation, posing an especially hidden threat at demolition. While asbestos generally poses little harm when stable, once the wrecking ball hits these houses, the material can go airborne, putting residents at risk for mesothelioma, a once-rare form of lung cancer.

“We need to step in and get out in front of the problem,” said Dembrow said, who intends to work after the session with stakeholders to find a way the state can deal with the problem of lead paint in homes that are ready to be demolished and will seek legislation in 2016.

DEQ can charge a fee for the asbestos inspection, which would pay for the program without taxpayer money. Like remodeling inspections, DEQ would also have the authority to require abatement of the asbestos before the demolition takes place. Rules for the law’s enforcement will be left to the Environmental Quality Commission, which governs the agency.

News source: