HOUSTON -- Houston had a gusher of a problem last summer. But it wasn’t just the 600 water mains that broke because of our record drought.
The I-Team discovered some of the workers doing those repairs were put in harm’s way—exposed to cancer-causing asbestos while repairing the broken pipes.
"I'm scared," said Luis Matute.
Matute and others claim no one told them that the water mains they were sawing through were made of asbestos concrete.
I-Team: "When you cut the pipe, what happened?”
Matutue: “Smoke, whoosh, dust, came all the way, like whoosh."
Fellow worker Abraham Rodriguez said the same thing.
"It made everything a white dust cloud,” Rodriguez said in Spanish.
Worse, both men said they didn’t have on a respirator mask or protective clothing at the time. That’s an industry norm when working around asbestos dust.
"Asbestos is a known carcinogen," said Celeste Monforton. She spent 11 years working at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the federal agency that regulates health and safety issues in the workplace.
Monforton said the real health hazard occurs when asbestos is aggressively disturbed, such as sawing or hammering.
“You're releasing the (asbestos) fibers into the air," Monforton said. "They penetrate into your lung tissue and other tissue in the body," she said.
The I-Team discovered Houston has more than 1,000 miles of asbestos concrete pipe underground, in which more than 200 emergency repairs were done last summer.
One contractor the city hired to do the work was Reytec Construction Resources, Inc, which then hired the subcontractor that employed workers Matute and Rodriguez.
I-Team: “Did your bosses ever tell you this was asbestos?”
I-Team: “Did they ever tell you to wear protective gear?”
Matute: “No, nothing."
And Rodriguez also told us something similar:
I-Team: “No one ever told you?”
"That's immoral to do something like that,” Monforton said.
“You just can't, I mean that's just unacceptable ... that's a known carcinogen," she said.
So how could this happen?
We tried to catch up with the City of Houston’s public works director, Daniel Krueger, but he took off down a stairwell.
However in a phone conversation a few days later, Krueger said even though the city hires them, that it's the contractor’s responsibility to comply with worker safety laws.
We found two problems with his reply.
First, other cities like Dallas have strict and explicit rules for the contractors they hire to provide respirators, eye protection and disposal suits.
The other issue lies with Reytec Construction Resources, Inc. itself.
"They are a serious violator of OSHA regulations" says Laura Perez-Boston of the non-profit Fe y Justicia Worker Center.
Turns out, Reytec Construction is on OSHA's severe violator list--
a select group of about 300 companies that the agency says are the worst when it comes to safety. Three repeat violations landed Reytec on that list.
"It's just very disturbing and alarming," said Perez-Boston. She claims that the city should never have hired the company in the first place, and is pushing for the city take a zero-tolerance approach in the future.
"You know if you're going to be violating the law, you can't continue to operate in this city," she said.
So we went to Reytec to ask some questions of company Vice-President Rusty Pena.
I-Team: "In terms of asbestos concrete pipe...”
Pena: “Are we on (camera) right now?”
I-Team: “We are on.”
I-Team: “Okay, because I really can't talk to you."
Instead, Reytec sent us a statement disputing the "severe violator label,” saying no injuries or deaths were involved in the infractions.
As for the issue of the asbestos concrete pipe work, Reytec claimed it requires the use of respirators and eye protection and said it even held safety meetings with all of the subcontractors it hired for the repairs.
But the subcontractor that hired workers Matute and Rodriguez disputed those claims.
"We never had a meeting on that," said Medisco Imaging owner Melvin Cobb.
He said he had no idea his men were handling asbestos concrete.
Cobb: "We wasn't (sic) told that that's what it was.”
I-Team: “Should you have been told?”
Cobb: “Sure we should have been told."
“It’s irresponsible,” said worker Abraham Rodriguez in Spanish.
--Irresponsible for leaving them in the dark, and now with worry.
“It will do harm to my physical body,” said worker Luis Matute.