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Black aldermen oppose eased-up asbestos bill

CITY  HALL – An eased-up asbestos regulation bill meant in part to deal with complaints by Black contractors received initial approval at Friday’s Board of Aldermen meeting. 

The vote was 17 yes, eight no and three present. The changes didn’t impress Black aldermen, who voted as a block against the bill. Among African-Americans, only Board President Lewis Reed voted yes. Twenty-fifth Ward Alderman Shane Cohn was the only white alderman who didn’t vote for it. He voted present.  

The bill, sponsored by 24th Ward Alderman Bret Narayan, would exempt contractors who do smaller jobs from a requirement that asbestos abatement workers get the training and protection they need to keep them safe.

Narayan was the sponsor of the bill passed last year to require all asbestos control workers to get training as apprentices. After receiving numerous complaints, Narayan put through his current bill.

Formerly, Narayan had said his bill exempted projects with a value of up to $75,000 from the training requirements. But on Friday, he said he was raising the minimum to $125,000. The larger projects cause the most concern, Narayan said.

Black aldermen said they understood the need to protect the environment and workers. But they worried that the requirement might hurt Black contractors. 

They also urged that funding be found to support apprenticeship programs people who work with asbestos.

“This is not against air pollution and how it negatively impacts our city,” 26th Ward Alderwoman Shameem Clark-Hubbard said. “Can we take this off of who’s going to be impacted by this?”

The bill passed last year requires the health commissioner or his representative to approve permits on demolition, construction, reconstruction, alteration or occupancy of any building, structure or business. It specifies that no permit shall be issued unless the prerequisites for asbestos abatement procedures are met.

Teresa Page
The board acted last year after hearing from Teresa Page, who tore down walls and floors at a St. Louis worksite, not knowing that the dust she breathed was full of asbestos. She was suffering from terminal cancer. 

In separate action at Friday’s meeting, the board voted 19-3 to give final approval to a bill changing the way two firefighters’ pension programs are administered.

The change, meant to save money, would allow the Board of Trustees of the Firemen’s Retirement System to act as the Board of Trustees of the St. Louis Firefighters Retirement Plan.

The Firefighters Retirement Plan was formed in 2013 and covers all firefighters hired since then. The Firemen’s Retirement System covers firefighters hired before then. Both have separate boards and a separate staff to administer them.

“This is simply a governance change to the Board of Trustees that governs the firefighters’ retirement system,” said 16th Ward Alderman Tom Oldenburg, the bill’s sponsor. 

The new arrangement would save more than $500,000 a year, while giving firefighters more control of the plan, Oldenburg said.

But 28th Ward Alderwoman Heather Navarro noted that the city budget director, city attorney and comptroller had come out against the plan. She said that not long ago the people worked hard to transition to a new plan. 

“This is a huge disservice to all of the work that has been done to the firefighters and to the city as a whole,” Navarro said. “I haven’t heard any reason why we need to move backwards.”

The city established the Firefighters Retirement Plan as part of an effort to deal with rising costs in the Firemen’s Retirement System. Pension costs had increased from $6.4 million in fiscal year 2001 to $29.1 million in fiscal year 2013. At the end, they made up a third of the Fire Department budget. 

Jim Merkel Born and raised in the St. Louis area, Jim Merkel covered communities throughout the area from 1991 to 2013 for the old Suburban Journals of Greater St. Louis. He is the author of five books about the Gateway City published by Reedy Press. The latest is Growing Up St. Louis: Looking Back Through the Decades. He and his wife, Lorraine, live in the Bevo Mill neighborhood of south St. Louis with Miss Jenny the Cat. For more about Jim, visit

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