By TIM ROWDEN
More than 100 union construction workers rallied outside St. Louis City Hall Sept. 26 to mark National Mesothelioma Awareness Day and voice their concern for public safety in the long-delayed redevelopment of the historic and long-vacant Jefferson Arms building in downtown St. Louis.
Mesothelioma – a type of cancer – is often directly linked to asbestos exposure. When asbestos work isn’t done properly and safely, workers and the surrounding community can be exposed to dangerous, life-threatening toxins – often without knowing they are being exposed.
Mukemmel “Mike” Sarimsakci, CEO of Alterra International, in 2016 announced plans to rehab the 13-story, 500,000-square-foot Jefferson Arms building, at 415 N. Tucker Blvd., into a Marriott-branded hotel, single-family apartments and ground-level retail. The proposed $104 million redevelopment includes roughly $10 million in asbestos abatement work.
St. Louis-area construction unions led by the Eastern Missouri Laborers District Council, St. Louis Building & Construction Trades Council, and St. Louis-Kansas City Carpenters Regional Council are demanding Alterra (which has received $20 million in tax incentives for the project, including $17.4 million in tax-increment financing (TIF) and $2.6 million in special sales tax districts), demonstrate how it plans to complete the project successfully and safely.
City TIF funding requires developers to use at least 25 percent certified minority-owned companies and at least five percent certified women-owned businesses.
Sarimsakci has made clear he plans to use a non-union Texas company, paying less than area standard wages and benefits, to handle asbestos abatement work on the project, raising concerns about worker and public safety.
“The redevelopment of the Jefferson Arms building is a prime example of why city leaders need to be vigilant in their pursuit of public and workforce safety,” said Brandon Flinn, business manager of the Eastern Missouri Laborers District Council. “We’re calling on city leaders to ensure the safety of the general public and the construction workforce by not only passing laws that hold high standards for developers and their contractors, such as requiring workers to be trained in government approved apprenticeship programs and to provide resources to ensure compliance with these laws for the safety of all.”
Alterra indicated to City officials that the Texas company would work with a local site demolition firm and that there would be both union and non-union employees used on the project.
However, Flinn says when union officials met with Alterra, in two sessions organized by Mayor Lyda Krewson, “they were evasive on that.”
Labor leaders are calling on the city to insist that all asbestos removal on the project be done by workers trained in federally approved union apprenticeship programs.
3,000 PEOPLE EVERY YEAR
Three thousand people every year are diagnosed with mesothelioma, said Chris Guinn, attorney with the Simmons Hanley and Conroy law firm, which represents workers and other victims of mesothelioma and asbestos related diseases. Eighty percent of those cases are asbestos related.
“Most people think that asbestos in the United States is a thing of the past and it’s not,” Guinn stressed. “Thousands of Americans get diagnosed with asbestos-related disease and die from asbestos exposure every year. And it’s not just workers, it’s workers’ families, it’s innocent people that walk by buildings that are being improperly abated and have no idea that they’re even being exposed to asbestos…. You can’t smell it. You can’t taste it. Most of the time you don’t see it. You’re being exposed to a deadly poison and you have no idea that it’s even happening.”
‘LIVING EVERY DAY LIKE IT’S MY LAST’
Among the speakers at the rally, Teresa Page, of Belleville, made clear why having a reputable contractor with a properly trained workforce is so important. She developed mesothelioma after having previously worked for a local, non-union demolition company.
“My crew was not fortunate enough to have the proper safety equipment necessary for handling asbestos,” Page said. “We were given paint masks –– not abatement suits but paint masks –– by men who wanted a job done. Who didn’t care how it was done. That negligence will literally be the death of me, as I have been diagnosed with mesothelioma caused by asbestos.
“Mesothelioma is a real thing,” she said. “It’s not just something that happens to other people. It’s not just a commercial in the middle of the night telling you to go and sue someone.
“Just three years ago I had a future,” Page said, breaking with emotion. “I had plans for retirement, two great kids, a new house, a really great job with the government. One meso diagnosis later and I no longer have a future. No 401(k), no retirement, no vacations, no grandchildren, no getting that cool senior citizen discount at the movies. I was looking forward to that. I was given six months to five years to live. Three surgeries one round of chemo later and I’m still standing, I’m still here, and I’m living every day like it’s my last.”
Page called on the city to ensure that employers “don’t cut corners by hiring cheap laborers. . . instead of safe asbestos abatement teams in your local unions.”
City Alderman Cara Spencer (D-20th Ward) said she and other aldermen are working on a proposed ordinance to require federally approved training for all employees on city-aided projects that are engaged in work related to asbestos and other hazardous materials.