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Displaced tenants say owners knew about asbestos for months

Tenants displaced from a James Bay apartment building undergoing renovations say they are concerned about their health because of potential exposure to asbestos before they were moved.
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Residents stand in front of James Bay's Charter House, from where tenants were moved to a downtown hotel because of potential exposure to asbestos during renovations at the apartment building. Construction dust was found in two units.

Tenants displaced from a James Bay apartment building undergoing renovations say they are concerned about their health because of potential exposure to asbestos before they were moved.

Scores of tenants were moved to a downtown hotel by Starlight Property Holdings Inc., the owner of Charter House at 435 Michigan St., in late January.

A notice banning entrance remains on the door of the building, with round-the-clock security to ensure no one enters.

A man who tried to retrieve his passport on Thursday was not allowed in. A member of the hazardous-materials crew remediating the half-century-old building searched for the passport but could not find it.

Tenants will not be allowed back until Island Health signs off on asbestos testing.

“The timeline is difficult to estimate right now as it depends upon lab-test processing time as well as what the results show,” said Island Health spokeswoman Kellie Hudson. “So not likely this week.”

Tenants say they are upset at the time it took for Starlight to deal with a situation they allege was known to the owner for months — a charge that Starlight spokesman Danny Roth denies.

A renovation crew voluntarily stopped work at Charter House in December. The building was also the subject of two WorkSafe B.C. stop-work orders last year.

Charter House is one of six James Bay buildings bought by Starlight in late 2015.

Paul Mitchell, a tenant for six years, said residents fear they might have been exposed to contaminants. Some tenants who moved out might have taken contaminated possessions with them, he said. “The health implications for each of us may not be known for years,” Mitchell said in an email to the Times Colonist.

Another tenant, Sean Clazie, said tenants had been alerting management about possible contaminants coming into their suites for more than seven months.

Roth said, however, that management was not aware of contamination fears. “We didn’t have any reports from residents of these types of concerns,” he said.

Roth said the company acted immediately on Jan. 13, moving tenants from two units where construction dust had been found. The decision to move tenants from 59 other units was made out of “an abundance of caution,” he said.

He said isolated areas in Charter House have elevated asbestos levels.

Test results received Jan. 24 were shared with Island Health that day, Roth said. Results from common areas and a second unit indicated exposure levels and a need to move all residents. “There was no foot-dragging on this by management.”

Tenants told Island Health of asbestos-related concerns in December, around the time of the voluntary work stoppage.

Island Health said elevated levels of asbestos were detected in settled dust samples at Charter House and “may not necessarily indicate that air samples would also have elevated levels.”

“We believe this is low risk,” Hudson said, “but need to wait for additional air quality testing, which is being conducted by the owners of the building.

“Island Health recognizes that the residents may have concerns about the possibility of having had contact with asbestos and we will be working to provide further information about the likelihood of exposure as that information becomes available.”

Island Health and the B.C. Centre for Disease Control are making joint recommendations to Starlight and support its asbestos-mitigation strategy, she said.

Mitchell said that Starlight started cosmetic upgrades that could disturb asbestos, lead and silica without warning tenants or taking adequate precautions.

Starlight is paying hotel bills and supplying $200 a week to defray food costs, he said, but that does not counteract the “massive emotional impacts” on tenants, including some who work from home and some in their 90s.

“As you can imagine, the novelty of living in hotels with a microwave for a kitchen has quite worn off for tenants,” Mitchell said.

NDP MLA Carole James, who represents Victoria-Beacon Hill, said the situation raises broader questions about the rights of tenants to be warned about asbestos. “This is a bigger issue than simply these buildings,” she said. “If WorkSafe comes in, their responsibility is to the workers; they’re not responsible for the tenants.”

James said she has been unable to find any requirement that tenants be informed.

“That seems to be a huge gap from my perspective.”

She wrote to Housing Minister Rich Coleman, asking what he is doing to ensure that tenants are protected from asbestos or other hazards during renovations.

The NDP plans to reintroduce a bill in the legislature to strengthen tenant protections in the Residential Tenancy Act.

B.C. Housing said tenants should inform landlords in writing of safety issues, and if unaddressed, apply for dispute resolution seeking compensation or rent reduction.

The WorkSafe B.C. orders last year involved compliance and health and safety issues regarding asbestos surveys, containment and ventilation, spokeswoman Trish Chernecki said. One order was issued on May 6 and lifted on May 12, and the second was made on July 19 and lifted Aug. 3.

“The violations were small disturbances of asbestos and each employer complied with the orders and the stop-works were lifted,” Chernecki said. WorkSafe B.C. considers any level of disturbed airborne asbestos hazardous to workers, she said.

— With a file from Lindsay Kines