STATESVILLE, NC (WBTV) - Residents in one Statesville neighborhood have been fighting for months to have a pile of toxic rubble cleared off the site of the Old Davis Hospital.
Demolition work on the hospital, which has been closed for decades, began last September but stopped after neighbors convinced state regulators at the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services that the building was full of toxic asbestos.
Now neighbors are asking why regulators allowed demolition work to start at all before proper asbestos testing had been conducted on the hospital complex.
Old building, big plans, many delays
Work to demolish the Old Davis Hospital began last September.
The building's owner, Fred Godley, wanted to clear the building and sell the land to Mitchell Community College.
But before the land could be sold, the old building complex - with its various structural and design issues - had to be razed from the site.
Records show Godley hired Steven Tarleton and his company SS Demolition to do the work.
A permit application submitted by Tarleton to the Department of Health and Human Services shows he began demolition work on one of the hospital complex's buildings in late September.
Before the demolition work began, Tarleton hired a certified asbestos inspector to test one building on the complex for asbestos-containing materials.
A report submitted by the inspector shows three samples were taken and only one sample tested positive for a type of asbestos that does not pose an immediate threat to the public.
Based on that test - of only three samples - regulators in Raleigh allowed the demolition to go forward.
Two of the complex's three buildings were knocked down.
Piles of bricks, concrete and other debris from the two buildings remain on the site months later.
Neighbor's complaints prompt closer look
State inspectors with NC DHHS inspected the demolition site after work began but did not notice any possible asbestos-containing materials, emails provided by NC DHHS show.
It wasn't until a neighbor filed a complaint with the North Carolina Department of Labor that Health officials took a second look at the site and the possibility for additional asbestos contamination.
A string of emails between an NCDOL employee and Grant Turinsky, an industrial hygiene inspector supervisor with NC DHHS, shows neighbor John Stafford sent a complaint in late September, around the time demolition is reported to have started.
Turinsky, with the inspector supervisor, told the NCDOL employee that his inspectors had been to the site and only found asbestos-containing roofing material.
In a separate email from Turinsky to an Iredell County building official sent October 5, 2015, Turinsky said the only asbestos-containing material found in the Old Davis Hospital was floor tile that contained a less-harmful type of asbestos.
Turinsky was emailing the county official to press him to life the stop-work order that had been issued for the project so that the last building on the complex could be knocked down.
"We just received this asbestos survey from the building at the Old Davis Hospital," Turinsky wrote, noting the only positive material was the floor tile. "I feel this is adequate enough information to allow the stop work order to end," Turinsky wrote.
It wasn't until an email from neighbor John Stafford to Turinsky three days later, on October 8, that NC DHHS officials decided to send inspectors back to the site.
"Upon speaking with Lynn Niblock of the County permit department he informs me that the North Caroline State has given the property a clean slate for demolition and the only asbestos in the building is in the mastic for the floor tiles," Stafford wrote in the email to Turinsky. "This is not the case with that structure. This building has asbestos that is blown on for fireproofing, Thermal proofing pipe insulation, and hundreds of solid core asbestos fire doors."
Turinsky forwarded the email along to his colleagues twice; first with a note saying the active part of the demolition contained only less-harmful asbestos and, the second time, saying the agency would not respond to Stafford's email.
But Turinsky had a different message the following week after inspectors visited the demolition site and found additional material that was suspected of containing asbestos.
"Based on the HHCU's compliance inspection on 10/12/15, we are recommending that the demolition of the Main Building at the Old Davis Hospital be put on hold," Turinsky wrote. "HHCU Inspectors located suspect, asbestos-containing pipe insulation and ceiling tiles throughout the main building."
That same day, Stafford sent Turinsky his own private asbestos testing - taken from just seven samples - that had one sample test positive for a type of asbestos called Amosite, which is highly toxic.
Later that afternoon, Turinsky emailed his colleagues to say there was a 'significant' asbestos issue at the site.
Danger identified, little action taken
Ultimately, an asbestos test paid for by NC DHHS identified harmful, toxic asbestos in 43 of 45 samples taken from the site.
Turinsky and his colleagues determined that the entire debris pile strewn across the site of the Old Davis Hospital was contaminated with asbestos.
The main building that had yet to be torn down also contained harmful asbestos and its demolition would have to be handled by a certified asbestos abatement crew, state regulators determined.
Emails produced by NC DHHS shows Turinsky asked Tarleton, the demolition contractor, to put a hold on his demolition permits until a thorough asbestos inspection could be performed on the property.
Later emails show NC DHHS determined a certified asbestos abatement crew would have to be hired to both remove the asbestos-tainted debris and demolish the remaining building.
But that has yet to happen.
"My hope would be that the county, the city and the state combine their resources, quickly abated the project, cleaned it up and went after the owner," Stafford told On Your Side Investigates.
The Iredell County Board of Commissioners voted to advance Godly, the property's owner, $50,000 to jumpstart the process of securing the site and removing the toxic debris.
Every day the debris sits on the site, Stafford said, neighbors are exposed to asbestos-containing material blown around by the wind or washed away by rain.
"The (city and county) knew and have always known that the major problem with this building, and why it's been undeveloped for 30 years, is because the abatement cost was so expensive to rid the asbestos from it," Stafford said.
In December, a spokeswoman for Mitchell Community College, who will purchase the property once its clear, issued a statement saying work to clear the site would be done within six weeks.
"Over the next six weeks, the site will be secured and the buildings will continue to be demolished with all of the State and local required permits in place," the spokeswoman said. "This process will include monitoring and the removal of any hazardous materials using the required protocols."
When On Your Side Investigates visited the site in late March, a chicken-wire fence stood around a portion of the site, which was still littered with toxic asbestos-containing debris.
A spokeswoman for NC DHHS said the agency continues its work to address the cleanup of the Old Davis Hospital site:
"DHHS' role is to exercise due diligence by reviewing the demolition notification provided by the owner. DHHS did that"
"Engagement of an accredited asbestos inspector is a requirement that is to be fulfilled by the project's general contractor. (DHHS did not conduct the asbestos inspection)."
"As stated previously, the Amosite which was found in the debris piles has been identified as originating from the fire doors which are mixed in with the demolition debris. The HHCU is working with the county to make sure the project is cleaned up properly and follows all proper protocols, as previously addressed to all involved by the HHCU."
A spokeswoman for the department did not respond to follow-up questions from On Your Side Investigates about why Turinsky and his office did not act sooner to identify and test for possible asbestos-containing material before the building was demolished.
Multiple attempts by On Your Side Investigates to reach Godley were unsuccessful.
Tarleton, the contractor hired to demolish the building, would not provide Godley's phone number when reached by a reporter but did offer a comment himself.
According to Tarleton, his crew had all necessary permits and required testing before demolition began. He hung up before answering why toxic asbestos was found in the debris pile.