Co-Op City's Owner: New York City's Asbestos Rules Should Be Changed

  • Feb 28, 2014
  • Christopher Placitella
  • Product Liability

Current New York City policy requires residents to spend millions of dollars on unnecessary asbestos removal, the owner of a residential complex has claimed. RiverBay Corporation, the operator of Co-op City, made the claims in a letter to Mayor Bill de Blasio, adding that “now it is time for you, Mayor de Blasio, to do the right thing and immediately rescind the punitive directive requiring Co-Op City to abate an asbestos problem that does not exist.”

The company’s complaint stems from a 2005 inspection that found asbestos had been used as an ingredient in the glue used to attach plaster tiles to floors in the Co-Op City apartments. The work was carried out forty years ago – as so much asbestos-tainted building work was – and the company is keen to point out that more than 65,000 subsequent tests have yet to show any trace of airborne asbestos. Why then, the argument goes, should they be paying for the cost of remediation? In essence, RiverBay seeks to draw a distinction between problematic asbestos – that which residents can reasonably be exposed to and which may pose a health risk – and asbestos that, while technically a health hazard, poses no immediate or long-term risks to those living in the buildings. The company claims that the city’s 2005 order requiring tiles be replaced when they buckle fails to account for the fact that any asbestos is “perfectly encapsulated” in the master glue, posing no risk of becoming airborne. The city, however, considers exposure of the glue to de facto constitute exposure of asbestos particles. In a way. it’s a battle of semantics, but with such high risks – asbestos is carcinogenic and has been highly regulated since the federal Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 – the outcome could have serious ramifications.

At the time the asbestos trace was discovered, the city ordered a $20 million re-flooring of the vast complex (which consists of more than 15,000 apartments and houses some 55,000 residents.) Many questioned whether the initial test results were even accurate, with the New York Post reporting that apartment owners were blaming “overzealous” city inspectors. A lawsuit has been filed seeking compensation for money spent on the floors, with one lawyer describing the singling out of Co-op City as “Alice and Wonderland-ish.” The suit also hopes to stop the asbestos-abatement order.

Asbestos removal is no easy task, and with the health risk posed by the once-common building material, caution is understandable. Asbestos testing and related costs translate to an extra $4 million annually – a 4% maintenance increase for apartment owners. Changing even one tile now requires costly preventative measures and on-site management. To those who have to pay, it’s unnecessary regulation and overkill. In forty years, no Co-Op City maintenance worker has ever reported sickness from asbestos or mesothelioma. Yet, doesn’t the city have a duty to protect residents by regulating the use and removal of asbestos?

The mayor’s office has yet to reply to RiverBay Corp’s letter, despite – the company says – a pre-election promise to help remove the costly conditions should he become mayor.  Former Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Joel Miele, commissioned by RiverBay, has also given his support to ending the abatement order.

So, what will Mayor de Blasio do? That remains to be seen, though the level of risk posed by asbestos may be enough to justify general laws that may, in some cases, seem heavy handed. Thousands of lives have been lost to asbestos-related illnesses, but thousands more may be saved by limiting the use of asbestos and taking reasonable precautions when removing it from buildings.

About the Author

Christopher Placitella has built an award-winning reputation as an asbestos and mesothelioma lawyer working at the Cohen, Placitella & Roth law firm. Admitted to practice in New York, New Jersey and the United States Supreme Court, Mr. Placitella was named as one of America’s 100 Most Influential Trial Lawyers by The Roundtable in 2011.

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