A contractor hired by the county cut into asbestos-containing materials improperly after no inspection occurred.

COURTESY PHOTO: U.S. GEOLOGICAL SURVEY - Anthophyllite asbestos fibers.Oregon environmental regulators fined Multnomah County and a contractor last month for failing to follow asbestos removal safety protocols during a renovation project at a North Portland home.

County officials didn't have an asbestos inspector survey for the home and then hired a contractor that was not certified to remove asbestos to perform the project in violation of state law, according to an April 22 penalty notice from the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.

DEQ issued a $3,200 fine to the county and a $2,200 fine to contractor Aladdin Heating & Air Conditioning Corp., penalty notices show.

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that was widely used in construction materials historically because of its resistance to heat and electricity. It is regulated by multiple state and federal agencies because exposure causes lung cancers and other respiratory problems.

The violations "could have released asbestos fibers into the air and exposed workers or the homeowner to asbestos," read the penalty notice to the county.

In early 2020, officials working in the county's weatherization program conducted an energy audit at a home in North Portland, according to the penalty notice. The program assesses homes and makes recommendations for how people can save money on energy bills and improve air quality with actions such as window air seal improvements and insulation. Services are free for low-income residents.

As part of the energy audit, county officials proposed to replace a basement oil furnace in the house with a natural gas furnace.

The audit didn't identify any asbestos-containing materials and county officials never had an asbestos inspector survey the home, DEQ officials said.

Months later, they hired a contractor to replace the furnace. During the replacement, the contractor cut through 10 feet of materials on the furnace's duct, which contained 40% asbestos by weight, potentially releasing toxic fibers into the air, according to the penalty notice.

County officials "should have known" that the oil furnace being replaced may have asbestos-containing materials and ordered an inspection, DEQ officials said, adding that officials' actions were negligent.

County officials worked with the contractor to abate the asbestos after the homeowner presented them with a sample of the asbestos-containing material. DEQ officials factored those positive efforts into their assessment of fines, the penalty notice shows.

Weeks later, a licensed asbestos abatement contractor removed the asbestos-containing materials from the home and decontaminated the area, according to the penalty notice.

Ryan Yambra, spokesperson for the county, said in a statement that contractors are expected to immediately stop work and hire a certified asbestos removal contractor when asbestos is discovered or suspected.

"We have worked with this particular contractor to ensure they are fully aware of this expectation," Yambra said. He added that Aladdin Heating & Air Conditioning had the proper credentials to do the furnace replacement project.

Reached for comment Thursday, May 19, Ernie Khal, owner of the company, said he was cooperating with DEQ and paid the fine. He added that he has implemented policy changes to better identify asbestos.

"We have also changed our practice to include more overt inspection for asbestos by weatherization staff prior to issuing a work order," Yambra said.

The county is cooperating with DEQ and reviewing processes and procedures to ensure contractors comply with laws, he said. It expects to pay the fine in full, he added.

"We appreciate the DEQ's work to ensure the safety of our community," Yambra said.

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