State probes asbestos claims at Lahaina Surf

WAILUKU – A state official with the Occupational Safety and Health Division was on Maui on Wednesday to investigate complaints from a once high-ranking Hale Mahaolu employee alleging that the organization has not taken appropriate steps to remove asbestos from a Lahaina low-income housing complex.

The employee, Kula resident Robyne Nishida Nakao, also alleges that she was demoted in retaliation for continuously pressing the safety issue with Hale Mahaolu Executive Director Roy Katsuda.

Last week, Nishida Nakao filed complaints with the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations’ Hawaii Occupational Safety and Health Division over the inappropriate removal of asbestos from the ceilings and floor tiles at the Lahaina Surf Apartments. Her complaints include her charge that Katsuda demoted her from deputy executive director to development director in April.

The demotion came after months of being “alienated,” she said Thursday while on medical leave for stress and anxiety.

Katsuda, the longtime head of the nonprofit, could not be reached for comment Thursday afternoon despite multiple calls and messages from The Maui News.

But Katsuda told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that there was no retaliation against Nishida Nakao, and that corrections to housing units were made properly.

Hale Mahaolu manages 14 affordable housing properties for the elderly and families, or approximately 1,000 rental units in Maui County. It also has support service programs. It has an approximately $88 million annual operation budget, according to Nishida Nakao, who has worked at the agency for 20 years.

Nishida Nakao’s “notice of alleged safety or health hazards” complaint to the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations’ Hawaii Occupational Safety and Health Division maintains that employees were not trained in proper remediation and disposal of suspected asbestos. Nevertheless, they removed the material at the Lahaina site as well as at Hale Mahaolu Akahi and Elua in Kahului. She also alleges that the air is not being monitored as required during asbestos removal and employees do not have proper equipment.

Nishida Nakao said that the asbestos abatement is immediately needed in two or three Lahaina Surf units. Around 88 percent of the 112 living units have asbestos, she said. Twenty-two units at Lahaina Surf are managed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s housing assistance program for very low income families, seniors and those with disabilities.

Bill Kunstman, spokesman for the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, said Thursday afternoon that the department has 90 days to act on the discrimination complaint and six months to act on the asbestos issue.

After Nishida Nakao’s story was made public, another employee, Rick Nowak, a maintenance supervisor for Hale Mahaolu, also went public Thursday in substantiating Nishida Nakao’s complaints. He also is on medical leave, saying he has been “stressed and depressed” over the issue.

Nishida Nakao, 39, has sought legal counsel and has retained Wailuku attorney James Fosbinder. Nowak said he will retain Fosbinder as well.

Nowak, who oversees maintenance for four Hale Mahaolu properties, said that he was told by Katsuda to keep the issue of asbestos removal at the Lahaina Surf Apartments “hush, hush” and that Katsuda had preferred that the organization’s employees – who Nowak said have minimal training and are ill-equipped – do some of the removal, citing cost issues that would prevent the organization from removing all the asbestos from the Lahaina Surf.

Asbestos abatement per unit was estimated to cost nearly $14,000, Nishida Nakao said.

She agreed with Nowak, saying that Katsuda told employees to keep quiet about asbestos at the Lahaina property.

“They felt that having proper abatement would be a public nightmare,” Nishida Nakao said.

She added that Katsuda “wanted to do this as discretely as possible” so the matter would not be an attention-getter and cause panic.

Nowak said that when he and Nishida Nakao got involved with the Lahaina Surf property in 2011 as part of Nishida Nakao’s duties of remedying ongoing management issues, they discovered residents there had been complaining about building issues. Those involved the ceilings and floors containing asbestos, Nowak said.

Nothing had been done despite complaints made over the years, he said. He added that there was an instance in which a tenant had to be moved out of her unit because “the ceiling (which contains asbestos) was falling in her food as she ate.” He added that tile filled with asbestos from another unit was removed, but the tenant’s furniture remained in the unit.

Nishida Nakao said that after hearing a complaint from a worker about asbestos, she turned to Katsuda, who gave her a letter dated in 1981 noting that an asbestos assessment was done and that the Lahaina Surf was at acceptable levels.

When she took the letter to show staff, she was told that the standards are now stricter. So she did research and contacted the state Department of Health. It confirmed the stricter rules.

Noting that the Lahaina Surf was old, Nishida Nakao said she determined it would be better if all asbestos were removed at once. She said that, with an old building, many repairs are necessary that may involve workers dealing with asbestos issues. So it was better to clean the place up, she said.

Nishida Nakao tried to get Katsuda to agree to estimates for asbestos testing but he denied it.

She said that, often during the process, Katsuda said there was no money for the work.

But Fosbinder said that the organization has money for these types of purposes and would not have had to seek outside funding or raise rents.

Nishida Nakao said that Katsuda told her to proceed with the tests using Hale Mahaolu employees to collect the samples.

According to a letter Fosbinder has sent to Hale Mahaolu’s board of directors, Nishida Nakao coordinated asbestos training for Lahaina Surf staff members after they removed the samples but before the receipt of test results.

The letter said that certified asbestos management instructor Mark Muranaka warned that it takes only one asbestos spore to be inhaled to develop adverse health problems, including the risk of cancer.

The letter reported that Katsuda stated that for someone to be adversely affected by asbestos, someone would need long-term exposure to it or “eat it.”

Test results by Globeteck through its INALAB confirmed that there were asbestos fibers in excess of allowable levels, and that asbestos was present in 10 of 17 samples, the letter said. It was recommended that the asbestos material be removed by a certified asbestos abatement contractor with a special license.

After some back and forth between Nishida Nakao and Katsuda on the best way to remedy the issue, unlicensed asbestos contractors began remedial work on one of the buildings in 2012, according to Nishida Nakao.

When she asked about the removal of asbestos in other buildings that had tested positive, Katsuda demanded that she transition out of the Lahaina Surf and focus on development projects.

Nishida Nakao, who at one point teared up while speaking with The Maui News at Fosbinder’s office in Wailuku, said it wasn’t easy coming forward. She said that Katsuda had been her mentor.

“He taught me a lot of things. It’s very emotional,” she said, adding that she was motivated to come forward for the welfare of others.

“For me, the health and safety of the staff and the community and the residents. That’s the motive,” she said.

As a mother, she said, she looks at her son when she comes home from work and thinks about the health of the children at the Lahaina Surf and wonders if they will become sick from the asbestos.

“I think it is easily preventable if you do it the right way,” she said of the asbestos removal.

Fosbinder said that Nishida Nakao has been a model employee and has worked hard through the years and has accumulated hundreds of hours in vacation and sick leave because she never leaves work.

She was named among Women of Excellence in 2013 by the Committee on the Status of Women in Maui County, and she was a finalist this year in Pacific Business News’ “2013 Women Who Mean Business/Nonprofit Businesswoman of the Year.” She also was among Pacific Business News’ awardees for its “2013 Forty under 40” awards to honor Hawaii’s best and brightest young businesspeople.

“Hale Mahaolu is my heart and soul. This is something very difficult. It’s like a divorce,” Nishida Nakao said. “I care about the company and the residents. . . . It’s hard to be away from the family.”

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@maui