Charleston airport officials want to recoup financial losses from removing asbestos discovered during renovation and expansion, but they might face an uphill struggle.
They learned earlier this week it will cost $670,000 to remove the cancer-causing substance embedded in a tar-like waterproofing material at Charleston International.
The substance was found in January behind brick walls being dismantled as part of the $200 million redevelopment of the 29-year-old terminal building. The asbestos removal will also delay airport construction by about a month to September 2015.
"We are going to look closely to see if we can recover this funding from the contractor who installed it or the manufacturer who made it," airport attorney Arnold Goodstein said. "When the airport was built, it was widely known that asbestos was toxic."
He believes the Charleston County Aviation Authority, which owns and oversees the state's busiest airport, has a "good chance" of recovery by looking at the "chain of handlers."
Airports Director Paul Campbell doesn't know who the contractor was and said the staff will have to sort through old records to determine the installer.
"There may be some remedy," he said. "If at all possible, we intend to pursue it."
It is believed the work was done around 1982, meaning more than three decades have passed since the material was placed on the building.
If the contractor or the manufacturer are no longer in business, the airport could turn to the retailer who sold it, but even then, airport officials could have to dig deeper to make a legal case, said Anne Kearse, an attorney with Mount Pleasant-based Motley Rice law firm, which handles asbestos cases.
Not all asbestos was banned by federal regulations in the 1970s, she said.
"What was banned was pipe insulation, fireproofing materials and things sprayed on ceilings - things that could become airborne," Kearse said. "There are some products that still have asbestos that are properly labeled. They have to be below a certain level."
The adhesive used at the airport might have been legal, and it could have been labeled as containing asbestos, she said. The work specifications might have called for that product as well.
Among other qualifications for the airport to collect damages, officials would have to show that the product was dangerous or defective and there was a substitute that could have been used, Kearse said.
Campbell believes other materials were available at the time and one of those should have been used.
"There is no way in 1982 asbestos should have been used on this project," he said.
Even though some asbestos still might be legal, Kearse said the firm's stance on the substance is one of zero-tolerance.
"The position we have taken is that there is no safe level because it's a cancer-causing fiber," Kearse said. "There is no safe level for carcinogens."
Campbell said the asbestos discovered at the airport never posed a danger to passengers or workers there because it was not airborne.
Reach Warren L. Wise at 937-5524 or twitter.com/warrenlancewise.
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