On a morning in late November, Sylvia Ortiz, principal of Casablanca Realtors LLC, awoke to the sound of shattering glass. Hurrying outside, she watched construction workers drop slate sliding to the ground. Upon impact it crumbled, a cloud of dust forming over the pile of debris. Ortiz knew through her experience as a real estate agent that the clouds she saw forming and then blowing into the nearby river and the surrounding area contained asbestos.
The home Ortiz witnessed being deconstructed is part of the $58.95 million Kinnickinnic (KK) River Rehabilitation and Flood Control Project. The project includes the demolition of 82 homes, 44 of which have already been torn down. All are along the stretch of river running from South 6th to South 16th street along West Cleveland and West Harrison streets. The homes are being demolished as part of the process to widen the base of the river, which will reduce flood risk and improve safety by decreasing the velocity of water flow in the channel from heavy rain runoff.
Compared to tearing down buildings with a wrecking ball, deconstruction is a slower, more expensive process in which older buildings are torn apart section by section to salvage reusable materials.
Ortiz, who grew up in the area, and other members of the community, including Alderman Jose Perez, protested during a recent meeting of the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD) commissioners. Ortiz witnessed similar practices at other deconstruction sites, including a home two blocks east on the 1200 block of West Harrison street, where slate sliding and other debris still sits in the backyard, a few hundred feet from the river. She and other residents are concerned that children, fishermen and even ducks that swim in the river are being put at risk for asbestos and lead contamination.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, lead poisoning causes irreversible health effects. In children, very low levels of exposure to lead causes reduced IQ, reading and learning disabilities, and a range of other health and behavioral problems. The most common source of lead exposure for children is lead paint in older housing and the contaminated dust and soil it generates. Asbestos has been classified as a known human carcinogen by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
MMSD officials reacted swiftly to the residents’ complaints, fining two companies, Jaramillo Contractors, Inc. and Cream City Wrecking and Dismantling, LLC, for failing to monitor subcontractors to ensure proper asbestos removal. One subcontractor, the Professional Asbestos Removal and Services Corp., was terminated and banned from working on future district projects. Kevin Shafer, executive director of MMSD, said the agency relies on contractors to make sure their subcontractors follow the rules.
“The contractor is responsible for the cleanup job being done to local and state specifications,” Shafer said.
Moving forward, MMSD will contract with an additional asbestos monitor to remain on site during all deconstructions. The policy is being extended to all future waterway projects, according to Shafer.
Although pleased with the actions taken by MMSD, Ortiz wants testing done in the area to ensure that children and animals don’t have elevated lead levels.
“There’s already been over 40 houses torn down; how many other houses were (demolished) improperly?” Ortiz asked.
MMSD officials said they were pressured to move the project along quickly as local residents complained about boarded-up houses in their neighborhood.
“The neighbors want the homes to come down even faster,” said Steve Jacquart, intergovernmental coordinator at MMSD.
County Supervisor Peggy Romo West has requested a report on all demolitions from MMSD.
As for lead concerns, no effort is currently under way to test exposure levels in the area along the river. In a letter to Ortiz, MMSD officials stated that they were doing everything they could to ensure the lead-painted building material is disposed of safely and properly.
When asked why testing was not being done, MMSD Commissioner Ben Gramling said the housing stock in Milwaukee is old. That, along with remnants of now-banned leaded gasoline in the area, means people likely have lead in their system. Gramling is director of environmental health programs at the Sixteenth Street Community Health Center, 1032 S. Cesar E. Chavez Drive.
“Without a doubt there’s lead in the environment,” Gramling said, but added that it’s difficult to isolate what’s causing it. Gramling acknowledged that there is no acceptable level of lead in the bloodstream.
Sixteenth Street Community Health Center tests children in the area for lead exposure. MMSD officials said they would look into a strategy for testing lead levels. In addition, they plan to send out information on the dangers of lead, including where residents can take their children for a free lead exam.
The MMSD board promised to address additional concerns and answer all Ortiz’s questions in the coming weeks. Perez requested regular updates on the status of deconstructions.
Until then, Ortiz and others will be keeping a watchful eye.
Pointing at a beer sign on the ground next to a pile of slate siding at a half-completed deconstruction site on West Harrison, she said, “They told me that this debris could have come from anywhere; but this building used to be a bar.”