ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – It’s a massive 70-year-old hospital building bought by the City of Albuquerque two years ago. Mayor Tim Keller pledged to transform the old Lovelace Medical Building into a showpiece complex to address the city’s homeless problem. Once complete, the Gateway Project is designed to be a modern multi-purpose homeless shelter and health services center.
Over the past year, the city has been engaged in a $9.5 million building renovation. The Gateway Center is expected to open for business later this year.
But there’s trouble at the Gateway Project, and it’s not something Albuquerque officials will talk about. You see, it isn’t just a construction zone; it’s a danger zone. Internal city documents obtained by KRQE News 13 show how Albuquerque officials involved with the Gateway renovation blatantly violated federal health and Safety regulations putting lives at risk.
“We consider (these) to be serious allegations that warranted an OSHA investigation,” New Mexico’s Occupational Health and Safety Bureau Chief Bob Genoway said.
“If there were corners cut to be able to expediently get this project done and it put people at risk, then there should be outrage,” said Albuquerque City Councilor Dan Lewis. Councilor Lewis has reviewed the documentation obtained by KRQE News 13.
One of the roadblocks to renovating old buildings is the presence of asbestos. In the 1950s, when the original Lovelace Hospital was built, asbestos was commonly used in building materials like insulation, ceiling tiles, and flooring. Today, if construction workers encounter asbestos during renovation projects, then stringent federal abatement regulations must be followed.
“(Asbestos) does cause cancer, and it is recognized to be a carcinogen,” said UNM School of Medicine Pulmonologist Dr. Akshay Sood. “It’s important to minimize exposure to asbestos to construction workers because there is a tremendously high risk of developing… cancers as well as other diseases associated with asbestos exposure,” Dr. Sood said.
Breathing asbestos fibers can be deadly, so only specially trained and certified work crews are allowed to operate in asbestos remediation areas. Full body suits, respirators, gloves, and boots are required. Asbestos debris must be bagged and disposed of in a hazardous waste repository.
“Bottom line is we’re trying to make sure that employees don’t become seriously ill or injured from hazards in the workplace. Asbestos is a recognized, serious hazard in the workplace and can cause serious diseases,” OHSB Chief Bob Genoway said.
According to a city timeline, last year contractors doing renovation work on the Gateway Center’s second floor used a large mechanical scraper to rip out and shred old tile flooring containing asbestos. The debris was swept up with brooms and thrown in the trash. There were no worker safeguards, no notifications, no protective gear, no respirators, and no regard for the law.
The Occupational Health and Safety Bureau (OHSB) initiated an investigation after receiving complaints that allege, “No inspection or testing was done prior to demolition work. Workers are not wearing PPE and are scraping, and grinding. The HVAC system is still running and may have transported dust through the building. Staff have raised safety concerns multiple times but the project is politically driven and two work stop orders from the City’s Risk (Management) Division have been ignored.”
On February 28, 2023, Albuquerque’s Risk Management Division informed Gateway Project Manager Jesse Valdez that “There is high possibility that there is asbestos in the areas of the Gibson Health Hub that are under construction. All work in these areas must cease until an asbestos test has been performed.”
An internal city document noted, “There was no pause on the construction site with the reasoning that Risk (Management) does not have jurisdiction to shut down construction sites.” Renovation construction was halted only briefly and then resumed.
On March 9, 2023, test results confirmed the presence of asbestos in the 2nd-floor work area. OHSB Investigators directed the city to halt all work in the asbestos area. “It is imperative that a regulated area be established immediately. The area must be secured from unauthorized persons and demarcated immediately,” OHSB Safety Compliance Officer Lorenzo Montoya wrote.
“Asbestos is a serious hazard. It can cause serious illness, and therefore, violations related to not properly handling asbestos are considered serious violations,” OHSB Chief Bob Genoway said.
In its March 9, 2023, notification to the city, obtained by KRQE News 13, OHSB wrote, “The General Contractor and at least one Subcontractor were performing demolition, construction, and renovations in an area of the building in which (asbestos) is present. The work has been ongoing for a year without (an asbestos) survey having been conducted. Our interviews with contractors and employees have confirmed that proper abatement did not occur due to significant deficiencies in training and lack of surveys conducted as well as other deficiencies.”
According to OHSB’s Safety Compliance Officer, “concerns were expressed regarding public safety and health given that the facility is frequented by patients, clients, and at least 20 different tours directly through the construction area.” Lorenzo Montoya’s email continued, “During a second visit on March 14, we identified employees wearing respirators with the wrong filters, expired filters, and in a scenario in which respirators were not necessary in the first place.”
Any violation of federal OSHA regulations can result in significant fines and other penalties. The OSHA investigation is ongoing and expected to last several months.
So, how do city officials respond to the Gateway Center allegations? They don’t.
Project Manager Jesse Valdez and Albuquerque General Services Director John Craig did not return phone calls for comment. The General Contractor for the project is Consolidated Builders. The firm’s CEO, Samia Apodaca, also did not return phone calls. Mayor Tim Keller did not respond to News 13’s request for an interview.
“These are very serious allegations against the city,” City Councilor Dan Lewis said. “This administration should be answering questions. They should be talking about it, talking about what they’re doing to mitigate risk. So the first level of accountability is transparency.”