For years a building in Litchfield on Highway 12 housed a Mexican restaurant until owner Denny Rutledge decided to renovate the building for new tenants last fall, tearing out floor tiles that were potentially full of asbestos.
Rutledge says he left the details of the redesign to his partner and project manager, Steve Knisely. One of those details was to figure out what to do with old floor tiles that were ripped up during demolition.
Concerned citizens, who were pretty sure the tiles were made of asbestos, took pictures of the broken floor tiles sitting in a trailer outside the restaurant in September of 2011. The images show that the tiles were broken into pieces and were not covered from the outside air; however, the problem with asbestos is that when it's broken and crumbling, the carcinogen gets into the air.
In fact, asbestos is supposed to be buried in a qualified landfill so its fibers don't get inhaled. When being moved out of any construction project, it's supposed to be wet down and wrapped in plastic.
Knowing that, the citizens called the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, but they say nothing happened -- at least not until the FOX 9 Investigators got involved and asked the state and county for all phone records, e-mails, notes and reports related to the old Mexican restaurant through the state's public records law.
Those records show that no one from the MPCA checked on the possible asbestos until it was too late. That means the state may have missed two chances to catch the likely-toxic tile before it got buried in a landfill and test it themselves.
Records show that the MPCA worker who took the first call about the floor tiles didn't pass it along to regional investigator Paul Kimman, who covers the southwest part of the state, until Sept. 21, 2011 -- two days later. By then, the tile -- which had been sitting, unwrapped, in a Dumpster -- was gone. It had been taken to the Meeker County Landfill, which is not licensed to handle hazardous waste like asbestos.
Receipts show the tile went to the Meeker County landfill, along with other demolition debris, on the same day the call reporting the concerns was made. But even if the investigator had missed the tiles that day at the construction site, he might have had seen them anyway because Kimman was at the landfill for a routine inspection the day after the tiles were dumped there.
Jeff Connell, from the MPCA, said he finds the two-day lapse extremely disappointing. The concerned citizens didn't just take photos; they also took samples and had them tested. The results came back positive for asbestos, they say.
The state has those results, but because state workers didn't get out in time to take sample themselves, state workers can't prove they came from the restaurant and can't use the tests as evidence.
Since the tiles could not be documented in the dump and tested to confirm the presence of asbestos, that means no one could be fined in this case. Instead, warning letters were sent to Knisely and to the Meeker County landfill, where two workers were put through asbestos training.
The new restaurant is finished and is asbestos free, but Rutledge said he doesn't recall being told about the possible asbestos in the floor tiles.
Buried is where this entire story might have stayed. Right along with that possibly toxic tile had the concerned citizens not done something else.