| Three weeks after a botched roofing job caused asbestos contamination and rainwater damage in their homes, several residents of the Americana apartment complex are moving out for good.
Tenants have moved out of all but one of the units on the third floor of Building Five due to high levels of asbestos dust, which is known to cause lung cancer and other problems when inhaled. Many renters in those units say they are leaving belongings behind due to fears of asbestos contamination.
According to residents contacted by the Voice, the problem started in early October, when workers began to remove the old roof on Building Five. Residents said the roofing crew used powerful equipment that violently shook the building, causing asbestos dust to fall from the textured fire retardant "popcorn" applied to the ceilings.
"The pounding was so severe it felt like bombs were dropping on us," one third floor resident said.
While the work may have caused exposure to unhealthy amounts of asbestos dust, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District said there would likely be no consequences for the Americana's owners.
"We did not find there was any violation of our regulations," said Karen Schkolnick, spokesperson for the air district.
In the past the district has settled lawsuits with apartment owners for up to $300,000 in damages when asbestos was removed incorrectly by untrained workers. But in this case, Schkolnick said, workers weren't trying to remove the asbestos, but instead shook it loose, probably unknowingly. There wasn't enough loose asbestos to warrant tests by the district -- a gram of material is necessary, Schkolnick said.
Although the roofers were apparently unaware of the presence of asbestos, residents say Prometheus, the company that manages the complex, was aware of it, having dealt with a similar situation in a Cupertino apartment complex in 2000. According to Americana residents, Prometheus even warned them in lease agreements not to disturb the building's asbestos.
After requests from residents, Prometheus had its own tests done. Of the 17 test results available earlier this month, six apartments had measurable amounts of asbestos. At least one was found to have a very high level of asbestos -- 1.2 million structures per square centimeter. By comparison, the company says, a common "background" level of asbestos is 10,000 structures per square centimeter, while "high" is 100,000. There is no regulated limit, according to the air district and the state Department of Health.
One test found asbestos on the mobile over a child's bed, a resident said. "We're all devastated that we let our kids be in there," she said.
Residents said the roofing crew has been fired and the roofing project halted, but not before four other buildings in the complex -- totaling 120 units -- underwent re-roofing earlier this year. In Building Five, a 30-unit building, work was halted before the roof could be finished, resulting in holes which leaked rainwater into some of the apartments. Since then, temporary fixes to the roof have been made.
Tests at Building Three found high levels of asbestos even after a full decontamination was done, residents said. Building Five residents now say they don't know if their apartments can ever be fully decontaminated.
The Americana Apartments complex is located at 707 Continental Circle, behind the Camino Medical Group facility. The complex's owners, the Tan Group in Palo Alto, refused to comment for this story. Prometheus did not return several phone calls before press time.
Last week, residents of Building Five, many with small children in tow, talked about the difficulty of leaving their homes and putting their work-from-home jobs on hold. Many second floor residents of Building Five are staying at nearby Crestview Hotel with no firm answer from management about how long the work will take.
Third-floor residents, who are permanently moving out of the most uninhabitable apartments, said they had to settle on the first apartment they could find, and are now paying unexpected relocation expenses and higher rents than the $1,800-a-month they paid at the Americana.
"We're being pushed into a high-rent rental market," one resident said.
"I hope I get reimbursed for all this," said another resident, pointing to garbage bags full of clothes that needed to be professionally cleaned after being exposed to asbestos.
Because residents are still fighting with Prometheus over relocation expenses, the four residents who talked to the Voice asked to remain anonymous.
The Prometheus Real Estate Group, as well as its development arm and its management arm, have been involved in at least 62 lawsuits in Santa Clara County since 1980. In 2000, residents of a Prometheus-owned apartment complex called the Biltmore in Cupertino were outraged when a construction project released asbestos dust from sheetrock. Prometheus is the largest private owner of multifamily properties in the Bay Area, according its Web site.
One resident said she had called dozens of agencies that might be able to hold the apartment owners responsible, from the governor's office to the EPA.
"Every single person told us to get a lawyer -- we are in no one's jurisdiction."
Air district inspectors will continue to work on the project as repairs are made to ceilings. Schkolnick said inspectors from the Department of Toxic Substances Control have also been to the Americana.
The toxicity of asbestos is uncertain, but the state contends that it takes decades of exposure for "most people" to develop health problems. Schkolnick said the textured asbestos "popcorn" coating is common on the ceilings of 1970s-era buildings. She cautioned people to call a professional if they believe they have been exposed to its dust and warned that using a vacuum cleaner on asbestos will only re-circulate the dust into the air.
The situation reminded one resident of the movie "Erin Brockovich." But in this story, there may be no underdog victory.
"The experience has been really eye opening," said another resident.
"It's remarkable -- they are going to get away with this."
For air district asbestos regulations, visit: www.baaqmd.gov
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