Dust billows up from renovations at 12 Arnold Circle before work was stopped about lead concerns. (Photo: Rena Leib)

Days after state regulators allowed resumption of demolition work at a deteriorating, four-story apartment building in Mid-Cambridge, the city shut down the job twice over continuing concern about lead exposure. In both cases, neighbors complained that the project was still putting them and their young children at risk.

The state Department of Labor Standards had ordered work stopped at 12 Arnold Circle on Aug. 30, finding that the contractor, U Call We Haul of Medford, was not licensed properly to remove lead and that the company had failed to contain potentially contaminated dust, among other violations. The same contractor was fined $7,500 in 2015 for similar violations in Brookline and was warned in 2010 about doing work involving lead while not licensed, according to records at the worker safety agency.

The state lifted its stop-work order at 12 Arnold Circle on Oct. 10 when the contractor obtained the proper license. City officials then shut down the job from Oct. 12-16, ordering the contractor to “shroud the entire building” in tarps from the third floor to the basement. The city stopped work again Friday because the tarps didn’t cover the entire basement level. The job was to remain suspended until an inspector visited and verified that the contractor was in compliance.

The shutdowns, together with the unexplained five weeks the contractor took to get his license, mean that work has occurred for perhaps four days since Aug. 30. John V. Matthews, principal officer of U Call We Haul, said by phone that he had not known of complaints, and that the building was now “all sealed up.” Asked about the time it took him to get the license, he said: “We had some paperwork. They wanted different things, and it took them two weeks.”

Work at 12 Arnold Circle was cleared to resume Wednesday by city inspectors, but a neighbor complained that lead-prevention efforts were in adequate. (Photo: Sue Reinert)

Raising an alarm

Residents at Arnold Circle say they still hope for a renovation of 12 Arnold Circle, but it’s coupled with dread about the impact of construction. “The building needs to be rehabilitated but at the same time making sure we keep the kids in this neighborhood safe,” one said.

Even very low levels of lead are dangerous to children under 5 and pregnant women. Arnold Circle is a blocklong cul-de-sac off Massachusetts Avenue that is jammed with apartment buildings at close quarters. The condominium building at 10 Arnold Circle sits almost on top of 12 Arnold; among its residents are a 4-year-old child, a 7-week-old infant, and a pregnant woman. A family in a home next to the back of 12 Arnold Circle has two young children.

The lead violations are the latest chapter in a long struggle over the future of the mouldering, vacant building. Longtime owner Kenneth Krohn – who served time in federal prison, held a law degree and a doctorate in mathematics and sold software to the federal government – lived there for years and filled the 12-unit building with his books, papers and other possessions as tenants moved out. The city ordered him to clear out the hoarded materials and bring the building up to code in 2011, without success.The city finally took him to court in 2016. Under pressure, Krohn sold the building to developer Edward Doherty in July, but a court case continues over the issue of whether the renovated building must include affordable units.

Interior demolition started around the beginning of August. One neighbor, who did not want his name published, said he had been in touch with the fire department long before the building was sold to express worry about the hazards of an old, neglected building that firefighters might be at risk when entering. “I said it was a clear and present danger,” he recalled.

When the work started, “I realized I hadn’t thought about the issue … this is an old building that hasn’t been touched in years. There’s lead and asbestos,” he said. (Christian Pisini, project manager for Doherty, said there is no asbestos). The man called the Inspectional Services Department, which referred him to the state Department of Labor Standards, he said. He talked to an inspector for the department to express his concerns, and that apparently led to the inspection and shut-down order Aug. 30.

Cleanup at 12 Arnold Circle was covered to a much lesser degree early this month. (Photo: Sue Reinert)

Unkept promises

Meanwhile, other neighbors had become alarmed at the clouds of dust rising from a dumpster in front of the building; some windows were also open or missing, they said. Three residents confronted project manager Pisini, recalled one woman who is in her third trimester of pregnancy and has a daughter who is almost 5. 

Windows in one room in the woman’s condominium are so close to a porch at 12 Arnold Circle that she can see much of the space inside – it looks almost close enough to reach across. The neighbors asked Pisini about lead, said the woman, who didn’t want her name published. “He said there’s no lead in the building,” she said. “When they asked how that could be, he said [Krohn] must have renovated it. They asked for a copy of the lead test results. He said he had to ask the office.”

The report never came – one of many unkept promises, she and others said. “He told all of us there was no lead in the building,” conformed another neighbor who wanted to remain anonymous. “He emailed a long list of precautions they would be taking.”

She added, “I wanted to believe it.”

“That’s what I was told”

Pisini said he took steps immediately to contain dust when neighbors complained in mid-August. He said he had workers seal demolition areas in plastic and he installed equipment to remove dust from the air. He would not allow a reporter to enter the building, saying the necessary personal protection would be burdensome.

Pisini told a reporter that there were “very low levels of lead” in the building. Asked how he knew, he said, “That’s what I was told.” In fact, there were no tests for lead in the building, according to the Aug. 30 inspection report. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which has issued guidance for lead removal, assumes that any building older than 1978 contains lead and requires renovation contractors to follow “lead-safe” practices. The state follows federal guidelines.

In the 2015 case when the state issues a $7,500 fine to U Call We Haul, the state had the demolition area on the first and second floor at 15 Gibbs St. in Brookline tested for lead after shutting down the job. The hazardous metal was found in dust and other material where work was occurring, but no material had gotten into an occupied apartment on the third floor, records said.

Asked what happened to bring on a fine in the Brookline case, Matthews said, “I’m not sure. [Inspectors] show up on jobs constantly. They give you a fine for anything.” In that case, U Call We Haul had penalties multiplied by a factor of 2.5 because Matthews had been trained in lead-safe practices and should have known how to comply, records said.

No evidence of improvement

Neighbors of 12 Arnold Circle were shocked and outraged to learn from a story in Cambridge Day that the state had ordered work stopped because of lead violations. After work resumed, residents nearby saw no evidence conditions had improved. They wrote to legislators, city councillors and state and city officials.

Rena Leib, who lives at 10 Arnold Circle, also sent photos taken during the work showing billowing dust from dumpsters and more dust on the ground. “We were worried at the time but were assured, apparently wrongly, that there was no lead present. Since we have a young child, a newborn and a pregnant woman in our building, we are very concerned,” she wrote. 

The complaints got action. City Manager Louis A. DePasquale, Inspectional Services Commissioner Ranjit Singanayagam and operations manager Anthony Tuccinardi showed up on Oct. 12, the Saturday in a holiday weekend, to meet with neighbors and work supervisors. That was the first of the city’s two stop-work orders. The second occurred after a city inspector cleared work to resume Wednesday, but a neighbor pointed out that the basement wasn’t covered fully by a tarp and there were other openings in the covering. Singanayagam returned to Arnold Circle on Friday and ordered the contractor to cover the basement fully, saying work couldn’t resume until an inspector checked compliance.

Limits of enforcement

Despite the city stop-work orders, the 12 Arnold Circle case has revealed city and state gaps in enforcement of protections against lead exposure during construction projects. At the city level, the Inspectional Services Department does not require contractors performing interior demolition in old buildings to be licensed as lead-safe renovation contractors and imposes no conditions relating to lead.

Asked why, Singanayagam said many interior demolition jobs involve minor work. The state Department of Labor Standards’ investigations are complaint driven, which would be hard to police statewide.

At the state level, rules focus on protecting workers from lead. Research shows that construction workers face higher risk of lead exposure than do other employees. And if workers get lead-contaminated dust on their clothing or shoes, they can endanger their children when they go home, state and federal agencies say.

Risk to workers

Several workers interviewed at 12 Arnold Circle last week said they always wore protective clothing and respirators on the job, as required. But neighbors said workers were in T-shirts until after the state shutdown. Then they saw workers wearing white “hazmat suits” for the first time, one resident said.

Workers must have their blood tested for lead before starting a job, and then every two or three months, according to state rules. If lead levels exceed a certain point, they are told not to work. The workers at 12 Arnold said Wednesday that their employer had scheduled blood tests for them in the coming week. At that point they had already worked for much of August.

State rules say elevated blood test results must be submitted to a state registry maintained by the Department of Labor Standards and the Department of Public Health. A report last year by the state Department of Public Health based on the registry found that the number of workers with high levels of lead in their blood had declined steadily from 1991 to 2001 but “several hundred cases of elevated [levels] continued to be reported each year. Lead exposures can result in short-term and long-term health problems for the exposed workers and potentially other members of their households. Continued efforts are needed to prevent occupational lead exposures in Massachusetts.”

Painters and de-leaders were the top categories of workers with high levels of lead in their blood, the report said. The health department hasn’t published a more recent report.