JACKSON The day after developers of a new Hilton hotel suddenly started demolishing structures on a two-acre site in the heart of Fondren, asbestos inspector Ryan Galfetti showed up unannounced after the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality received a complaint that asbestos may be present in the structures and the new piles of debris.
"This site was visited to investigate a complaint that demolition activity was occurring and compliance with asbestos regulations was a concern," Galfetti wrote in a Sept. 22, 2017, inspection report, released to the Jackson Free Press Tuesday, Oct. 17, after an open-records request to MDEQ.
Galfetti found a trac-hoe operator loading out debris from one of the demolished buildings at 523 Fondren Place. Operator Daryl Catchings, employed with S&R Development of Ridgeland, allowed him to inspect the debris, and he found no asbestos. The inspector learned from a phone call to construction superintendent Lance Conn of S&R that the developers had done an earlier property survey and found no asbestos on the site. Conn also told Galfetti that the company had submitted required paperwork for demolition activity.
The inspector found that three other structures on the site, slated for demolition, likely had asbestos siding requiring abatement and told Catchings not to destroy those buildings until the issue was resolved.
Three days later, Galfetti returned to the site with inspector Tommy Moody to investigate another complaint, presumably by Brian Heffner, as the JFP reported previously.
"At the time of this inspection, the structures had been completely demolished and reduced to piles of debris," the new report stated about the buildings it had flagged three days earlier.
Conn, who was on site that day, produced the developers' original private inspection report that showed no asbestos, but inspectors noted that "questions remained because suspected asbestos siding had not been sampled or tested." Conn told them he would mail them a copy of the filed inspection report. The inspectors collected nine samples after Conn told them demolition would remain suspended pending the results.
The MDEQ documents provided to the JFP show that Conn filled out a "Mississippi Asbestos Demolition/Renovation Form" the next day, Sept. 26, listing himself as a contact along with Kishan Gopal and Ali Bhatti of Fondren Hospitality LLC, showing an asbestos removal date of Sept. 27 to the remaining structures, including the old Green Ghost/Que Sera Sera restaurant. The report described the work as "cleaning up demolition debris that contains asbestos," adding that "transite siding was detected."
The report concluded, "Operations will cease and MDEQ notified."
Another notification form, filed Sept. 27, confirmed neighborhood fears that asbestos was found in earlier demotion debris on the site: "transite siding was discovered in demolition debri (sic) for homes that had been demolished."
The released MDEQ documents then show that the asbestos was abated before the restaurant came down on Oct. 3, noting that none of the toxic substance was still present by then after MDEQ ordered abatement work.
Reached that day via email, hotel investor and original property owner Alan Lange indicated that everything was on schedule and clean of asbestos, not confirming or denying rumors that the site was temporarily shut down for environmental testing after Heffner called MDEQ.
"The demolition is fully operational and on schedule," Lange wrote in an email to the Jackson Free Press on Oct. 3. "The Green Ghost building came down today."
Better Late Than Never
The newly released MDEQ documents tell a different and fuller story than previously confirmed. MDEQ first told the JFP that the hotel construction sites were "in compliance" with asbestos regulations and then later confirmed that the site did indeed contain traces of asbestos.
Asbestos experts tell the Jackson Free Press that it is highly unlikely that buildings built in the early to mid-20th century would be free of asbestos. Still, the asbestos report the developers filed with the city indicated that none of the toxic substance was initially found on the site, as the MDEQ documents noted.
Whistleblower Heffner provided the JFP a copy of the initial asbestos survey report that he had requested from the City's Department of Planning and Development after filling a request. It stated that a "copy of a MDEQ demolition approval was not found" in the City's records, which seemed to match initial concerns of MDEQ inspectors.
That report showed that, on Aug. 18, 2017, Neko Sharkey from the Environmental Advantage Group performed a visual inspection and collected "asbestos bulk samples of suspect asbestos containing building materials" at the request of Ali Bhatti from Heritage Hospitality Group.
Sharkey is the industrial hygiene consultant and EPA NESHAP building inspector. In the asbestos survey report provided by the City, it states that 73 samples were collected at the subject property. The subject property refers to the proposed demolition sites for the hotel and is listed as: one restaurant, two commercial office, a five-unit apartment building and four single-family residences.
These properties are located at 2801, 2815 and 2819 North State Street; 511, 513, 519 and 523 Fondren Place; and 524 Lorenz Boulevard. That private pre-demolition report states that none of the material collected for samples contained asbestos.
It goes on to say that samples of roofing, ceiling sheetrock and texture, floor tiles, wallboards and wall tiles were collected and placed in zip-lock bags.
The MDEQ website and the City-provided asbestos report mentions that demolition and renovating operators must submit a demolition notification to the MDEQ for all demolitions at least 10 working days prior to the demolition activity.