Asbestos at the Sheffield Slows Condo Conversion

After months of official tests that showed no contamination, city inspectors last week trundled over to the Sheffield, a West 57th apartment tower which is the site of a contentious condominium conversion, and determined that, yes, indeed, there was asbestos in the ceiling.

The discovery of the carcinogenic building material in the ceiling coating put a halt to the renovations to allow for a top-to-bottom clean-up.

The presence of asbestos in and of itself is not illegal—but when renovations may disturb asbestos-containing material, they have to be undertaken by certified handlers who know how to eliminate the risk of any sort of dispersion of the carcinogen through proper abatement practices. Earlier tests by a contractor hired by the Sheffield’s landlord, Kent Swig, showed no evidence of asbestos.

Ian Michaels, a spokesman for the city Department of Environmental Protection, said that seven out of 12 tests taken on April 17 came back positive for asbestos, meaning that a licensed asbestos-removal firm would have to do the work. Mr. Swig is having the textured, stucco-like ceilings sanded down.

Rent-stabilized tenants, who are permitted by law to remain in the building during the renovations and even after the conversion, have raised a ruckus over the disruptive renovations, and—as reported in the April 23 Observer—have enlisted the support of City Councilwoman Gale Brewer and other local politicians. Tests taken by consultants hired by the tenants showed the presence of asbestos in the ceiling coating as well as in dust generated by the renovations.

Mr. Swig said that a variety of inspectors—from the D.E.P., the state, his own contractors and those hired by his lenders—took more than 150 samples of the ceilings, and that those samples showed no evidence of asbestos.

“The trace amounts are way under the legal limit,” he told The Observer. “I would argue that whoever’s data that was that came out with a positive trace was inaccurate.”

Mr. Michaels, the D.E.P. spokesman, countered that the tests showed that the ceilings contained more than 1 percent of asbestos, which is the threshold at which proper abatement procedures must be followed.

He said that Mr. Swig has been ordered to hire an asbestos-licensed firm to clean the building’s common areas and also to use a licensed abatement firm to continue work on the ceilings. In addition, the landlord has agreed to offer the current tenants air-monitoring tests and cleaning services inside their apartments, and may yet face fines, Mr. Michaels said.

Mr. Swig characterized the clean-up and subsequent abatement as “voluntary,” because he said he could have disputed the results and asked for new tests.

“We have to err on the side of extreme caution,” he said on Tuesday. “We are in the process now of wiping down the building from bottom to top. That will take two weeks to do, and then we will voluntarily treat the removal of any other material as asbestos, even though it may not be.”

The D.E.P had taken 10 samples from ceilings at the Sheffield previously, but none of them showed a presence of the carcinogen, Mr. Michaels said. He said that when the Sheffield was built, the contractors may have used different mixtures of substances in different parts of the building.