Locals Hired To Work In Old Power Plant Allege Exposure To, And Improper Disposal Of, Asbestos
By Gordon Hopkins
A number of sub-contractors hired to work inside the now-defunct Fairbury Municipal Power Plant allege they were exposed to asbestos and were not informed there was asbestos in the building.
Those workers also claim insulation from the building now known to contain asbestos was not properly disposed of in accordance with federal or state regulations.
In 2022, the City of Fairbury contracted with an out-of-state company, Industrial Engineering Solutions (IES), to purchase several large machines from the power plant no longer in use, such as generators, turbines and condensers.
While asbestos was not mentioned in the contract, it does say IES will follow OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) ‘standards.’
Emails between IES owner James Daniels and Fairbury Line Superintendent Nathan Francis indicate both the city and IES were aware of the possible presence of asbestos. Daniels told Francis, “And any asbestos has to be hazmatted that is around the turbine ring, we are responsible for that.”
According to Fairbury Mayor Spencer Brown, IES left town without completing the work or paying what they owed. Because of the condition of the power plant building, Mayor Brown ordered an asbestos inspection survey, which was completed in February and confirmed the presence of asbestos in debris throughout the building.
In April, DHHS (Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services) ordered the city not to allow anyone inside the building without a respirator.
City officials recently filed a lawsuit against IES, alleging they did not fulfill the contract. Among the allegations in the court filing is, “Disturbing asbestos during IES’ initial work on the storage tank, and leaving asbestos in an un-remediated state.”
Locals Hired by IES
Mayor Brown previously said he thought IES may have hired some local citizens to help remove equipment from the power plant but did not know the details or if they followed any safety protocols, “I believe they had some locals, I don’t know the ins-and-outs of their staff,” Brown said.
FJN has identified several Jefferson County residents who were hired by IES as subcontractors to remove equipment and clean out the power plant building. They have asked to remain anonymous on the advice of legal counsel. FJN spoke to their attorney, Robert Bryant of Cada, Cada and Jewson Law of Lincoln, who explained that he did not want his clients to say anything that might jeopardize a possible case at this time.
FJN did not speak to the workers directly but submitted several written questions to them as a group. Their written answers were then returned to FJN, with identifying information redacted by their attorney.
Question: “Were you aware that there was asbestos in the building?
Answer: “No were not and in-fact we were told multiple times that there wasn’t asbestos in the building.”
FJN has spoken separately to one subcontractor who was not represented by an attorney. He also asked to remain anonymous, fearing reprisals by the city’s staff or elected officials. He described how, when he suspected there was asbestos in the insulation he was cutting, he approached one of IES’s staff, “And he’s like, ‘Alright, I’m just letting you know right now. Ain’t no asbestos in this building. Anything that I’m telling you to do is because I know that there is no asbestos there.’”
Question: “Was the insulation around the pipes and equipment removed and disposed of in any special manner or was it just removed, cut up and thrown away like ordinary trash?”
Answer: “We were told to hammer it off the pipes, shovel it into bags, and put in the dumpsters from (redacted) with the regular trash. The bags would break open and it was all over the ground outside and (sic) well as everywhere inside the building. We all asked on several occasions if this was asbestos and were all told NO.”
The unrepresented subcontractor FJN corroborated this, “If there was any jacketing on any piping, they would bring it all to the, using the cranes, bring it all to the top floor and then it would get set on the main floor and then somebody would come by and cut it all up. And it would just sit on the floor until somebody came by and scooped it up, put it into bags, put in just regular black bags, not asbestos bags.”
When asked where the bags ended up, the subcontractor said, “In the trash.”
According to the NDEE (Nebraska Department of Environmental and Energy), “RACM (Regulated Asbestos-Containing Material) must be transported by an asbestos trained representative in a marked vehicle and disposed of in a permitted Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) landfill.”
Not all permitted MSW landfills accept RACM.
Question: “Were you given any warnings about working inside the building?”
Answer: “No warnings were given – (redacted) actually stayed inside the building in one of side rooms because he was asked by (redacted) to stay on site for security reasons.”
Question: “Was the building kept sealed during the demolition or was it left open?”
Answer: “No it was all open garage doors and windows. There was one day that we were hammering the stuff off of the pipes that there was so much white dust in the building and outside on the ground we couldn’t see or breathe. We all had problems breathing and were sick or 2-3 weeks with chest pains, sever (sic) coughing and throwing up. We were all told that it wasn’t asbestos and it was ok to keep working. Some of us went to the doctor.”
FJN spoke to residents who live in the vicinity of the power plant and witnessed the operation. They confirmed the large garage door on B Street was kept open for much of the work.
Question: “Did you wear a respirator when inside the building?”
Answer: “Not at first – we only got offered respirators after a month of working there. (Redacted), Midwest Torching & Maintenance, came to work in the plant a month after we started and he provided us with respirators and hardhats.”
Midwest Torching & Maintenance was the company hired by the City of Fairbury to complete demolition of the oil tank after IES left.
Neighbors who saw the operation said the workers they saw were not wearing respirators or masks, at least part of the time. One said, “I can’t say that they never were, but I just don’t really remember seeing anybody wearing masks.”
Potential Repercussions, Medical and Legal
Recently, FJN received a telephone call from a woman, who asked not to be identified on advise of her attorney. She said that her son had been employed by IES to work in the power plant. She asked, “Who’s going to pay for all this? These doctor’s appointments? And what if he does have asbestos exposure? What happens then?”
When asked if her son or any of the other workers were currently sick, she said, “Not now, but four of them have been to a doctor. He told them they have to come back to be tested (for lung disease) every year for the rest of their lives.”
Asbestos is a known carcinogen and, according to the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), exposure to asbestos increases the risk of developing lung disease, including asbestosis and mesothelioma. However, the EPA also notes, “Disease symptoms may take many years to develop following exposure.”
In fact, symptoms can take decades to manifest. Bryant told FJN, “I have not sent a demand (to the city) and do not presently plan to do so as no damages have been determined to this point.”
When asked about the possibility of the city being sued, Mayor Brown responded, “Sue the city? Working as a subcontractor?”
The Mayor also said, “Well like I said, our legal team takes care of legal matters, that’s why they are there.”
FJN contacted the city’s law firm, Remboldt Ludke LLP, for a statement. As of press time, no statement has been received.
FJN asked for a legal opinion from Joe Lahav, attorney and legal advisor to the Mesothelioma Center of Orlando, Florida, a group that advocates for mesothelioma patients. Lahav said, “With respect to asbestos exposure suffered by the locals hired by IES, any illness-related claims seem premature at this point. That is because no one – so far as I can tell – is sick as a result of the exposure. Typically, asbestos claims require damages (ex asbestosis, lung cancer or mesothelioma). As you note, the illnesses often take years to develop. So, to the extent the locals get sick from this, it will likely be quite a while.”
Lahav pointed out he is not an environmental attorney. However, he told FJN, “From the facts presented, the city may have some liability related to the improper hiring of asbestos handlers/improper handling of the asbestos.”
Neither the center nor Lahav are involved in this matter.
In August of this year, Fairbury City Councilperson Bradley Kuzelka told FJN, “They (IES) should have been vetted better. Maybe this could have been avoided.”
No legal action has been taken against the city at this time.
When asked why the city did not announce to the public that there was asbestos in the building when he first learned what IES had done, Mayor Brown responded, “For what reason? I would of assumed that IES notified their staff of it or the potential of it.”