ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – The City of Albuquerque “willfully” violated federal safety regulations. It was wrong. The City knew it was wrong. Yet they did it anyway. That’s the finding of New Mexico’s Occupational Health and Safety Bureau.

It was a six-month OHSB investigation and now the City of Albuquerque and a private contractor have been slapped with the largest safety fine in New Mexico history for recklessly violating federal Occupational Health and Safety regulations at the city’s Gateway Center construction project.

“To willfully violate an OHSA standard is, it’s almost hard to understand why somebody would do that,” says OHSB Bureau Chief Bob Genoway. “When somebody acts in that way, it’s important that the message be sent that it’s not okay to willfully endanger workers,” Genoway said.

The focus of this investigation is on the 70-year-old hospital building bought by the City of Albuquerque two years ago. Mayor Tim Keller pledged to transform the old Lovelace Medical Center into a showpiece complex to address the city’s homeless problem. Over the past year, the city has been engaged in a $9.5 million building renovation.

One of the problems for contractors when you renovate old buildings is the presence of asbestos. In the 50’s when the original Lovelace Hospital was built, asbestos was commonly used in insulation and flooring. If construction workers encounter asbestos during a renovation project then stringent federal regulations must be followed.

That didn’t happen at the Gateway Center. Last year contractors doing renovation work used a mechanical scraper to rip out old tile flooring containing asbestos. The debris was swept up with brooms and thrown in the trash. It was only after whistleblowers alerted the OHS Bureau that an investigation was launched.

Following its safety probe the state’s OHSB concluded, the City of Albuquerque and its contractor, Consolidated Builders, violated federal safety regulations by “….demonstrating plain indifference for the safety and health of employees and exposed employees to asbestos…”

“The city allowed renovation work to take place without identifying asbestos that was present and without taking the necessary controls to prevent worker exposure,” Bob Genoway says. He adds, the contractor did the same thing. “Asbestos is a serious health hazard. It causes serious diseases. Failing to protect workers from asbestos exposure is a big deal,” Genoway said.

For seven violations of the OSHA Act, the City of Albuquerque was fined $761,112. Gateway Center contractor, Consolidated Builders, was fined $331,475 for nine violations.

“They failed to control asbestos hazards. They failed to make sure that their workers were kept safe from exposure to asbestos. This is an enforcement action, but we’re also here to provide the guidance that will be needed to make sure that this doesn’t happen again,” says OHSB Chief Bob Genoway.

In a news release late Friday, a spokesman for Mayor Keller acknowledged “…asbestos removal protocols had not been correctly followed…” The news release added, “The City Attorney is evaluating the full citation.” Mayor Keller has not publicly commented on the $761,000 fine which likely will be paid by city taxpayers.