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Lingering asbestos fears may slow state workers' return

Union demands safety checks at Saltonstall site

Massachusetts' largest public employee union is threatening to stay out of the state-owned Saltonstall Building when it reopens after a two-year asbestos cleanup and renovation project because much more of the carcinogenic substance was uncovered in the skyscraper's parking garage.


The 22-story office tower, which will now include condominiums and retail shops, was closed in late 1999 due to widespread asbestos contamination. Since then the state has poured $184 million into renovating and cleansing the Beacon Hill building. It is supposed to reopen in mid-January.

But this fall, construction workers completing renovations in the parking garage found an asbestos-laced coating on virtually all of the support columns, prompting a shutdown of the area and what has become a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week cleanup.

About 300 workers with the state Department of Revenue, which is leasing office space in South Boston, are set to return to the Saltonstall starting the second week of January, even as the cleanup work takes place a few floors below them.

But union officials say that will not happen unless they receive documentation that the air and office area is thoroughly cleansed of asbestos fibers. They have made two requests in writing and two verbally, but say that, so far, they have not gotten an adequate response from the state.

"It's our job to make sure our people are safe," said Lesa Lessard, a spokeswoman for the Service Employees International Union/National Association of Government Employees. "Maybe the building's safe right now, maybe not, but we want proof."

Yesterday, four union officials toured the building with others from the Massachusetts Development Finance Agency, the quasi-public agency overseeing the project. But while the union officials were impressed with the site's apparent cleanliness, they are still making no promises to return and are demanding formal bargaining first.

Robert Prezioso, head of the Division of Occupational Safety, which oversees asbestos cleanup jobs in the state, said licensed air-quality monitors have already signed off on the safety of the offices and are continually monitoring the garage cleanup to ensure that it does not pose a threat to construction workers or anyone else. He noted that the asbestos is not airborne, but is contained in a concrete coating and is much safer to deal with.

Karen Sawyer, a MassDevelopment spokeswoman, said the agency is trying to figure out which party, if any, is responsible for failing to locate the asbestos in the first place. After all, the vast majority of asbestos cleansing at the Saltonstall took place nearly two years ago in the first phase of the undertaking.

The project's budget was written conservatively enough at the outset that the new cleanup job will not affect the $184 million bottom line, Sawyer said, but the agency is nonetheless working with the contractors and subcontractors to find fault in order to get insurance to cover the new costs. The prime contractor on the job is Suffolk Construction Co.

Sawyer expressed confidence that the fears of the unions would soon be allayed and workers would return to the Saltonstall in time for the reopening.

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