Hollis Hills residents consider lawsuit against Con Ed for not informing them of asbestos remediation work on Union Turnpike

Two months after the median reconstruction on Union Turnpike in Hollis Hills began, Con Edison also began conducting asbestos remediation underground.
Photo courtesy of Arlene Schlesinger

Residents of Hollis Hills are considering a class action lawsuit after discovering that asbestos remediation was being worked on along Union Turnpike, and they were not informed of it before it began. 

The original project, which began in January 2023, was a reconstruction of the center median between Hollis Court Boulevard and 226th Street. Local residents have advocated for the reconstruction for many years in hopes of also receiving new street lights and traffic signals in what they say was a crumbling but frequently utilized corridor. 

During this process, residents observed five-foot-tall barriers that went up, restricting the view of the work and contributing to several vehicle collisions. After witnessing nearly completed medians being dug up to reveal deep openings, residents suspected that another project was underway.

“This was found out totally by accident,” said Mina Mauerstein-Bail, Secretary of the Hollis Hills Civic Association, which has been trying to raise awareness in the community about the issue. 

At a recent civic association meeting, community members packed out Greek Family Kitchen on Union Turnpike to hear from the board members who have been deeply invested in the issue over several months. 

At a recent Hollis Hills Civic Association meeting, a bag filled with a tar substance believed to be asbestos was passed around. Photo by Iryna Shkurhan

At the end of April, Council Member Linda Lee’s office organized a community meeting with Community Board 11, Hollis Hills Civic Association, Con Edison and city agencies such as Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and Department of Design and Construction (DDC).

During that meeting, Con Edison admitted that they began asbestos work on March 1 without giving the community the ten-day notice that is part of their policy. Those in attendance recalled the Con Ed community liaison telling residents that they withheld the details of the asbestos rumination project so as not to alarm residents. 

Con Edison also distributed a fact sheet to residents informing them that the asbestos was not toxic. It also addressed concerns of air quality monitoring. “Non-friable asbestos is less likely to release harmful fibers into the air,” read one of the bullet points. 

It also added that sampling is conducted daily, as required by both city and state regulations, by an approved third-party air sampling agency. The process involves utilizing pumps that pull air through a filter cartridge and capture a sample of fibers that may be in the air. 

However, many members of the community are not satisfied with how the issue was handled. The initial lack of transparency is also leading them to suspect that other forms of foul play are happening, such as improper work conditions and insufficient air quality reports. 

“Without any notice, we found out that they were also taking out pipes that had asbestos. But the community was never notified about that, which, according to the law, they should have been,” said Mauerstein-Bail

They also reported seeing pieces of tar lying around on the streets after windy days. At the civic meeting board members passed a ziplock bag around the room that had pieces they collected from the street. 

The work does not and will not pose any health impacts to the community,” a media relations manager from Con Edison told QNS in an email. “All air monitoring results continue to be far below acceptable levels.”

The original project to reconstruct the median was spearheaded by the NYC Department of Design and Construction (DDC). But like with other projects, Con Edison took the opportunity to examine its underground infrastructure and determined that there were underground pipes that required additional fortification, which involved the removal of what they say is non-friable asbestos. 

“It’s very common for City infrastructure projects to be coordinated with private utilities like Con Ed so that work can be done more efficiently,” said a representative for DDC in an email. 

It took more than a month after the initial April meeting for local residents to receive the air quality reports that Con Edison had promised. The air quality reports were finally distributed to residents at the end of May and indicated safe limits. 

In addition to requesting air quality reports, the concerned community members also ask for clearly visible signage along the road that lets people know that asbestos removal is underway, even if it is the non-friable kind. 

While board members of the civic association have been speaking up about it for several months, they say that they haven’t been able to inform as many people as they would like to. 

Since learning about the asbestos work, some say they avoid driving down Union Turnpike, and if they do, it is with the windows closed and their vents closed. They worry about winds blowing air from the open pits on the ground. 

The residents did see one indicator that asbestos was underway — in the form of an 8×10 sheet of paper placed on the inside window of one truck. They say it was only up for a dozen or so days and was barely visible during that time period. 

DEP asbestos enforcement staff have visited this work site and found no violations,” said a representative from the agency in an email. 

The DEP did not respond to a request for comment regarding when and why inspectors came to the site.

“We do understand that Con Ed has agreed to notify the residents of future abatement work and that they have shared the results of their air monitoring with the community – that shows all testing within acceptable limits,” DEP added. 

According to residents, an inspector from the DEP arrived at their request on May 20. But in the hours before, residents witnessed workers on the site setting up plastic covers and a decontamination truck that they say was immediately removed when the inspector left. 

“It was gone in two hours. Somebody notified them that the DEP was coming,” said Arlene Schlesinger, a local resident who has closely monitored the issue. “I realized there was absolutely nothing that’s going to stop them if you can make a worksite appear and disappear in two hours.” 

Residents continue to believe that foul play is ongoing, despite city agencies and Con Edison reassuring them that there are no health risks and providing them with air quality reports. 

Shortly after learning about the asbestos work, they relayed the message to Council Member Linda Lee’s office, which was also not informed about the second Con Ed project in advance. The agencies admitted that asbestos work was ongoing shortly after.

“When we reached out, we learned it was asbestos, but they said it was not airborne and is essentially harmless,” said Daniel Sparrow, Communications Director for Council Member Lee.

While he acknowledged that he understands why the community members are hesitant to believe the agencies after the second project was not publicized, he hopes that presenting the facts in a timely manner can lower tensions.

“Whenever you hear something about asbestos, that is alarming. But we realized that it’s not as severe as some people may have been worried about,” Sparrow added.

The work was originally scheduled to be completed in June 2024. However, the DDC has recently said the project is on target and will continue until the end of the summer.