A month after federal prosecutors accused demolition contractor Jesse Brown of exposing his workers and the children of a southwest Detroit neighborhood to cancer-causing asbestos fibers, the City of Detroit hired him to tear down abandoned houses, according to an investigation by the Detroit Free Press.
It wasn't until the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality issued so many violation notices against his company, Brown Environmental Construction, that Detroit officials suspended him for a second — and possibly last — time from Mayor Mike Duggan's aggressive push to tear down 40,000 blighted structures in neighborhoods across Detroit.
City officials told the Free Press that they will seek to permanently disbar him from bidding on any more jobs, and that he was told he would be arrested if he tried to do work on city properties.
A Free Press investigation found that Brown has received violation notices from the DEQ for issues at 30 separate properties since 2014 — more than any other contractor tearing down houses for the city — and his $40,000 in DEQ fines for asbestos violations were the highest among the city's contractors.
Despite that, Brown still managed to tear down 256 buildings at a cost of $2.58 million before he was removed in July 2016. That suspension was triggered when DEQ issued violation notices saying Brown demolished 13 properties in early June without first removing asbestos.
The situation became so dire the city brought in the fire department to wet the piles of debris from those buildings until the refuse could be hauled away, according to city e-mail. Firefighters used the water to ensure asbestos didn't go airborne, when it can be inhaled or settle on clothing, cars, picnic tables and other surfaces.
Asbestos is dangerous when it is dry and powdery, or easily broken up, and microscopic fibers are released into the air. There is no known safe level of exposure.
According to federal court documents, Brown knew the dangers of asbestos because his father had died of mesothelioma, a cancer caused by asbestos exposure.
And yet, prosecutors said in court records, Brown exposed his own workers and neighborhood children to asbestos fibers when they entered areas of the school building where asbestos debris was present.
Read the full investigation here.
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