Delaware Public Media | by Sophia Schmidt
The redevelopment of the former Boxwood Road General Motors plant in Newport is generating controversy. The dispute centers around abatement of the cancer-causing material asbestos.
DNREC officials told members of the public at a Newport-area meeting Tuesday they are investigating the demolition of the former GM plant, which Newport-based developer Harvey Hanna plans to turn into a business, fulfillment and distribution campus.
Union organizers and demolition workers claim unsafe and improper asbestos removal has occurred at the site.
At the community meeting, officials from the Division of Public Health, DNREC and the Office of Management and Budget answered general questions, but refused to address concerns specific to the project, citing the ongoing investigation.
Union officials and workers who said they had been part of the asbestos removal walked out, calling the meeting a waste of time. “When you do a meeting like this and you want to sit here and say, oh we can’t talk about, that is a slap in their face,” said Laborers Local 199 organizer Mario Corea, referring to the asbestos abatement workers. “I’m not okay with that.”
Union officials say they first reached out to DNREC with concerns two months ago.
A spokesman for Harvey Hanna calls the asbestos allegations “false and irresponsible.” He adds that no violations have been issued. “One union not engaged at the site has been picketing the property line on essentially a daily basis,” he wrote in an emailed statement. “If this union truly believed their own false allegations, we find it curious that these picketers would not be wearing personal protective equipment at the property fence line.”
Harvey Hanna launched a website last week to inform residents about the project and provide fence-line air monitoring data that the company has hired Batta Environmental to collect.
Batta’s sampling earlier this week showed the maximum concentration of airborne asbestos at the three fence-line locations was .005 fibers per cubic centimeter of air. The permissible exposure limit for employees set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is 0.1 asbestos fibers per cubic centimeter.
Tim Houseal is the lawyer representing ecoservices, the contractor handling asbestos removal. “Ecoservices believes it has complied with all applicable state and federal regulations regarding the asbestos abatement project at the Boxwood Rd. site,” he said. “Ecoservices understands that DNREC is conducting an inquiry into the asbestos abatement work, and ecoservices is cooperating fully and completely with that inquiry.”
Houseal says asbestos removal is continuing at the site and is expected to be completed in a few weeks.
State Rep. John Kowalko thinks abatement should be halted at the site until the investigation is complete, and says he has reached out to DNREC Secretary Shawn Garvin. “I think that the situation we have at the GM site is so threatening that it should be halted,” said Kowalko. “The first option should be protecting the people.”
He says even if the investigation reveals wrongdoing, it may be too late. “This is a case in point where DNREC says we have an investigation— [but] where were they when it was a matter of observing whether or not it was an enclosed area they’re working in, whether the employees were properly protected?”
State Sen. Anthony Delcollo is also following the issue. “Our goal is not to say, you’re right and you’re wrong,” he said after Tuesday’s meeting. “Our goal is to see that the proper regulatory oversight is happening. Our goals is to ensure that a thorough and swift investigation occurs. Obviously my primary concern is the health of my communities.”
DNREC officials declined to comment further on the investigation.