The planned implosion of the former Hudson's building downtown will release a cloud of hazardous asbestos dust that could blanket the Woodward corridor, says a group of Metro Detroiters petitioning federal officials to stop the demolition.
Some residents are claiming that tiles, wallboard and other materials containing asbestos are not being removed from the empty building setting the scene for a dangerous cloud they fear could reach Detroit's suburbs.
"We're getting ready to be guinea pigs for the biggest asbestos implosion in this state's history," said Robert Miller, who works near Hudson's and lived two blocks from the 28-floor building for more than a decade.
The issue of danger from asbestos during demolitions arose only recently, despite the not infrequent leveling of a slew of Detroit's largest buildings in recent years. Asbestos clouds were documented in 1994 and 1995 following implosion of highrises in Dallas and Kobe, Japan.
But contractors working in Hudson's say removal of loose asbestos has been thorough if somewhat rushed since it began in November. And not inexpensive: the cost of asbestos removal and demolition is $7.1 million, not including landfill dumping fees.
Saving the building, which would also require asbestos removal and containment would cost somewhere between $79-$150 million, Metro Detroit real estate developers have estimated.
On-going asbestos removal "could be going better," said Bob Majic of Loyalty Environmental, an asbestos contractor with 120 employees working seven days a week on the Hudson's cleanup.
"There's always something to keep you on edge when you're on a big job like this one. There's a lot of money tied up in this. The city wants to see this building come down soon."
By the end of March, planned stripping of asbestos inside Hudson's is scheduled to be completed, opening the way for the building's final destruction.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officials have the power to stop the implosion, if they decide an environmental threat from airborne asbestos merits it.
"We have the authority to halt work immediately, to delay this demolition," said Jennifer Darrow of the EPA's regional office in Chicago.
In theory, inspection of Hudson's for asbestos is a responsibility shared by the EPA, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and Wayne County. But in practice, the duty has fallen solely on Wayne County. No special state, county or federal permits for asbestos removal are required.
"There really isn't any way to assure complete compliance to make sure all the asbestos is out," said Nancy Hein, the DEQ's asbestos coordinator.
"We're short-staffed. There are 2,200 asbestos removals in Michigan every year. State inspectors can't go to every site that's just the way it is."
That explanation doesn't satisfy local residents, who say lack of an environmental impact study for the Hudson's demolition shows a serious flaw in planning.
"This is a question of accountability," said Rob Klatt, a Detroit delivery worker who watches Hudson's exterior in his spare time for signs of demolition.
"City officials have bulled ahead, refused to answer questions critical to our health and generally done what they want to do with this building," Klatt said. "Doesn't anybody give a damn?"
Plymouth resident Maura Cady believes the rapid pace of asbestos removal raises doubts about whether workers are reaching all the asbestos. Cady is a member of the Hudson's Building Redevelopment Committee, a group that wants to see the landmark building preserved.
"There are 2.2 million square feet of space in this structure. Are workers ripping down every wall? How do we know how thorough they're being?" she said.
Hasty demolitions in Japan and Texas have shown the price of poor preparations.
In 1995, after earthquakes wracked the Japanese port city of Kobe, demolition of highrise buildings led to airborne asbestos levels more than five times higher than usual.
Despite protective measures of wrapping buildings in plastic and spraying rubble with water, Kobe school children were issued masks to help filter out the hazardous fibers in the air. Kobe officials inspected few of the hundreds of demolitions, and local taxi drivers drove with their windows closed.
In 1994, implosion of the Dallas Cotton Exchange dusted the city with lead and asbestos particles that in some areas exceeded the federal Occupational Safety and Health (OSHA) daily asbestos dosage calculated for workers.
"You're never going to get every single asbestos fiber out of a building," said Dr. Kenneth Rosenman, a Michigan State University professor of medicine who has studied the effects of asbestos on health.
"When you destroy such a building, it's inevitable that some asbestos gets distributed. From a public health point of view, you certainly want to minimize that."
During commercial construction earlier this century, asbestos was sprayed on walls and beams as a fire retardant and wrapped around pipes for insulation.
Asbestos used in the workplace became regulated in the 1970s, when federal scientists concluded that prolonged breathing of the mineral fibers causes lung cancers and asbestosis, a chronic, sometimes fatal lung ailment. When airborne, the needle-shaped asbestos particles lodge permanently in the lungs if inhaled, sometimes causing illnesses decades later.
The total cost of removing asbestos from buildings across the United States is now measured in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
But at least one party has no problem with a speedy demolition of Hudson's.
Stacey Loizeaux is employed by Controlled Demolition Inc., the Maryland company chosen to bring 85 years of Hudson's history to the ground.
She said a company engineer visited the Hudson's site Wednesday, examining the internal structure and trying to create an implosion strategy for a building so old that no blueprints can be found.
Company experts estimate it will take 37 seconds and several hundred pounds of shaped explosive charges to reduce Hudson's to landfill rubble.
"We've imploded so many buildings and inhaled so much building dust that it's no longer an issue with us," said Loizeaux.
"I'd kind of like to see a picture of my lungs," she said.