The state’s environmental protection board overturned a $10,000 fine Thursday against a company accused of digging up asbestos-laden material and depositing the substance in a dumpster at the bustling Trenholm Plaza shopping center in Forest Acres.
A Department of Health and Environmental Control lawyer questioned whether the asbestos-tinged flooring had exposed shoppers in 2014, but DHEC has been unable to confirm that — and agency board members said during an enforcement hearing that the fine isn’t warranted.
“It is difficult for me to see a case for enforcement at this point,’’ DHEC board member Clarence Batts said, noting that he didn’t believe the toxic substance posed a threat to the environment.
Batts and other DHEC board members voted to overturn the staff-recommended fine after siding with CIDS Inc., a company hired to conduct demolition work inside the old Books-A-Million store two years ago.
“We did everything that we know to do,’’ said company owner Don Buchanan, noting he had a letter, obtained through the project’s chief contractor, saying asbestos didn’t exist in the building.
Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral used widely in the U.S. until about 30 years ago as a component in roofing shingles, ceiling tiles, flooring and insulation. The material later was found to be toxic to people who breathe it. It still exists in many buildings.
Breathing the fibers can eventually cause lung cancer or mesothelioma, a form of cancer, depending on the amount of exposure. Licensed contractors must be brought in to get rid of asbestos before demolition or renovation work can be done.
During Thursday’s enforcement hearing, DHEC air pollution regulators contended the Trenholm Plaza asbestos issue was more serious than CIDS made it out to be. They said CIDS should have checked thoroughly to make sure asbestos wasn’t in the store before digging up floor tiles.
The Books-A-Million renovation occurred in one of the busiest shopping centers in Forest Acres. The popular retail complex includes two grocery stores, numerous restaurants, and a coffee house. It is located at the intersection of Forest Drive and Trenholm Road.
In doing the renovation work, CIDS relied on a report that did not fully assess asbestos in the building, DHEC lawyer Dawn Miller said, urging the board to uphold the $10,000 fine issued by staff members.
“Fundamentally, this matter is about disturbance of asbestos that really could have been and should have been avoided through simple due diligence and common sense,” Miller told the board.
The material, mostly floor tiles and glue, was put in an open top dumpster with a company logo on it, she said.
At this point, it is unknown whether any asbestos escaped into the air at Trenholm Plaza from the dumpster. After the board vote, DHEC told The State newspaper that asbestos-containing material was disturbed and placed into an unlined, open-top dumpster, but the agency “has no direct evidence of exposure.”
Still, Miller said the issue is worth paying attention to. She said the amount of material disposed of from the Books-A-Million renovation was “substantial.”
“You can imagine shoppers returning from stores, going out to their cars, and walking right past this, being exposed to this material, as well as CIDS’ own workers,” she told the board.
CIDS isn’t the only company that has run afoul of DHEC air pollution regulators over the 2014 Books-A-Million renovation at Trenholm Plaza. DHEC also hit the project’s contractor, Boyer Commercial Construction Inc., with a $3,000 fine two months ago, according to the department’s March enforcement report. Unlike CIDS, Boyer agreed to the fine and will not contest it.
The enforcement report said Boyer violated federal and state asbestos laws by failing to make sure one of its project subcontractors obtained a DHEC license before beginning the project. An effort to reach an official with Boyer was unsuccessful Thursday afternoon.