For decades, thousands of transit employees — and dozens of high school students — may have been exposed to asbestos at the MTA’s East New York bus depot in Brooklyn.
Nearly all the vents that pump air into the first three floors of the sprawling depot are lined with asbestos-laced cloth, the Daily News has learned. The cancer-causing material was discovered earlier this year, but sources said transit officials have turned a blind eye to the potential health crisis.
The asbestos-filled cloth is designed to reduce vibrations on the noisy air vents.
Asbestos has not been used by heating and air conditioning professionals since at least the 1970s due to federal regulations and increased safety standards. The East New York depot, one of the city’s biggest, was built in 1947, and sources said much of the ventilation equipment inside dates to then.
The cloth is used to dampen vibrations on on 57 of the depot’s ventilation units, nearly all of which are now covered with signs that read “DO NOT DISTURB OR TOUCH THE VIBRATION CLOTH. THE VIBRATION CLOTH MATERIALS ON THIS UNIT CONTAINS ASBESTOS.”
The fan room where the vents are housed circulates air throughout most of the massive bus depot, the daily workplace of at least 700 bus operators, 120 maintenance workers, 50 dispatchers and 100 office workers. Employees at the depot have not been alerted to the problem since MTA officials learned about it earlier this year.
Asbestos was also found in the depot’s boiler room in 2017, emails from high-ranking MTA officials show. The dangerous material was removed by August 2018, records show. MTA bosses have since declined to provide an asbestos monitoring program for some people who worked in the area.
The MTA employs high school students as interns at the bus depot. At least 20 of them were exposed to asbestos while working in the fan room or boiler room, according to multiple people who who supervised them.
“In all the jobs I’ve ever been to, I’ve never seen what I’ve seen in Transit,” a veteran engineer told The News on condition his name not be used because of the MTA’s history of punishing employees who speak to the press.
“I’m a part of an asbestos monitoring program," said the engineer, who gets regular medical screenings and lung X-rays. "It’s pumping throughout the entire East New York building. They can mitigate this issue quickly and clean it up, but they won’t do the work.”
MTA officials insist the asbestos in the depot is not dangerous, despite signs displayed in the fan room stating otherwise.
The asbestos on the vents was discovered last winter when workers replaced equipment in the room, an internal MTA memo shows. One worker noticed that several of the cloths were frayed and were spilling dust into the depot’s air circulation system.
Managers removed some of the tattered material for testing, and it came back positive for asbestos, sources said.
“The test came back hot,” said an MTA employee. The employee said the asbestos is “friable,” which means it is easily crumbled and can make its way through the air into someone’s lungs.
Twenty, 30 or 40 years can pass between the time someone breathes in asbestos fibers and they are diagnosed with mesothelioma, a deadly cancer. Those who don’t get cancer might be sickened by asbestosis, a chronic lung disease that can cause shortness of breath.
“If it’s friable and it gets into your lungs you’re screwed,” said another MTA worker who is also in an asbestos monitoring program. “The only way they’re going to see it is if they get an X-ray of your lungs, and then see the lungs scar over years. Once it’s in your lungs, you won’t get it out. Asbestosis, mesothelioma. You’re screwed.”
MTA officials insist the asbestos dust in the depot is not friable.
Workers and engineers urged MTA managers to shut down the vents to let specialists to clear the contamination. The bosses declined to do so, sources said.
George Menduina, the MTA’s head of bus facilities, instead had workers do a patch job on the vents, said a source with direct knowledge of the decision.
“Menduina had them caulk and duct tape the holes,” the source said. “He’s always in that fan room. He approved the work.”
Months later, the asbestos issue was flagged again when more of the cloth was found to be tattered, an internal MTA memo says. In August, MTA officials took another sample of the material, and crews wearing no protective equipment were directed to sweep up dust that fell from the cloths onto the floor, the memo says.
Records show that on Sept. 9 Transport Workers Union Local 100 officers, engineers and MTA safety officials toured the fan room to see the health hazard for themselves.
Carl Hamann, who runs New York City Transit’s Office of System Safety, said that a third-party consultant was brought in to monitor the air quality and cloth material in the depot, and claimed that they “confirmed no friable asbestos” was in the depot’s HVAC system or air.
“We could have done a better job conveying management’s concern along with what was, and is, being done to ensure their (the workers') safety,” said Hamann. “While it has been deemed there is no risk of airborne asbestos from the fan plant, out of an abundance of caution an abatement plan for the remaining fabric is being developed.”
Local 100's head of buses JP Patafio said that the MTA should put everyone who may have been exposed to the depot’s airborne asbestos into a monitoring program. He said Bernard Jens, a high-ranking MTA safety official, refused to set up a program for some of his members who were directly exposed to asbestos in the depot’s boiler room two years ago.
“Jens seems more worried about being sued than the safety of the workers,” said Patafio. “If there was asbestos in there, I don’t think it’s unreasonable for my members to be tested.”
MTA officials declined to comment on Patafio’s recollection of his conversations with Jens.
Very few of the employees who work at the East New York depot have been alerted to the asbestos issue. Several bus operators told The News that they had never heard about the problem.
“Don’t nobody know nothing,” said one bus operator on Sunday. “The operators don’t know about the asbestos. The guys that work in the garage, I just called them, they weren’t told about it. They don’t give a s--t about us.”
One high-ranking MTA employee told The News that all of the employees in the depot should receive medical screenings.
“What they need to do is a health monitoring program similar to the 9/11 program,” the official said. “They need to put all employees who were possibly exposed in a program that involves screenings and respiratory tests. That’s what the regulations call for.”
Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams accused MTA officials of sitting on their hands while a potential health crisis broke out under their watch.
“This negligence cannot continue,” Adams said. “First it was dirty diesel buses polluting the air, now it’s dirty cloths on air vents exposing workers to asbestos.”