Asbestos, L&I, and More Lawsuits Added to Old Rainier Building's Woes

Workers are said to be considering class-action suit against Ethan Construction.

As we reported in April, the old Rainier Brewery in SoDo has enjoyed less-than-amicable relations between the developer and its prospective tenants (other than Tully's, the coffee company that has long occupied the bulk of the structure since the beer stopped flowing). Three groups of artists' co-ops are still hoping to homestead in the colorful ArtsBrewery complex alongside I-5, two of which seem to be making progress toward that goal.

However, soon after we reported on cost shifting from Ariel Development onto its artist tenants, several construction workers called Seattle Weekly to complain about the developer and its construction arm, Ethan Construction. At least two of the callers had earlier complained to the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries about improper handling of asbestos (among other health and safety citations), which resulted in an investigation and $12,000 in fines.

After another L&I investigation that concluded this summer, Ethan was fined $1,750 for asbestos mishandling earlier this year. "It was amazing how much asbestos was there. I started seeing all these violations over and over," says Dave Wilcox, a steel contractor who's among the disgruntled workers. He filed the most recent L&I complaint against Ethan, and was also named as a witness in last year's investigation. That led to Wilcox either quitting or having his contract terminated last year (depending on whom you ask), which motivated him to file a lien and lawsuit this June against Ethan for more than $30,000 in unpaid services.

Says Wilcox of his experience (he worked there intermittently from 2004 to 2006) at ArtsBrewery, "They only abated what they could see. And then they'd open up another area and, 'Oops, there's some more asbestos.'" As to whether he'd ever consider breathing the air and living at the ArtsBrewery, as the artists intend to do, Wilcox says, "Absolutely not. I couldn't live in that thing—no way."

Other workers are said to be consulting an attorney regarding a possible class-action lawsuit against Ethan—if they can find the requisite number of former workers, some of whom lacked proper documentation, to pursue such a suit.

Eitan Alon, a development executive with Ariel, says, "The big hazmat issues that the brewery had are dealt with and are gone. All the asbestos-containing materials went through proper containment and abatement process. We paid our fines. Our hands are clean, our hearts are clean.

"The commercial leasing is going quite well," Alon adds. "Very soon we'll have artists living and creating in the building."

An asbestos expert with L&I, John Stebbins, explains that century-old buildings like the Tully's/Rainier plant are always going to be full of asbestos. "It's not like this is a rarity," he says. "It's such a common material...that we get several cases per year." He notes, however, that out of some 7,000 investigations in a year, asbestos cases amount to perhaps 100.

Stebbins calls last year's fine of $12,000 "a fairly typical amount for asbestos removal being done wrong." (Fines doled out concerning other, larger projects have reached five times that amount.) "Asbestos was not being handled correctly," he says. "Some of the resolution has not been that great."

At least one artist isn't that worried. Painter Shai Steiner says, "We're building. We're ahead of everybody. Hopefully we'll be in by the end of September."

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