Hall of Justice gets the lead out

May 15, 2013 

Inside the scaffolding-clad Hall of Justice, a massive lead paint clean-up is underway. Photo/Clark Construction

Los Angeles County’s legendary Hall of Justice has had its share of dangerous inhabitants over the years. Now you can add one more to the list: lead-based paint.

The 1920s-era red oxide paint, containing as much as 39% lead, was found when construction workers last summer uncovered painted steel beams that had previously been encased in concrete. Testing on the steel and surrounding concrete revealed higher-than-anticipated lead concentrations in both.

This week, the Board of Supervisors approved an ambitious, $6.45 million abatement effort that will require lead removal in more than 15,000 locations throughout the hall, which, since opening in 1925, has played host to some of Los Angeles’ most notorious figures, including Charles Manson, Sirhan Sirhan and Bugsy Siegel.

The unexpected discovery of the lead-painted structural steel came as workers were preparing to begin seismic reinforcement work on the imposing downtown structure, which has been closed since the 1994 Northridge earthquake.

“Absolutely, it’s a surprise,” said Greg Zinberg, project executive with Clark Construction, the contractor for the renovation. “We’ve had to re-strategize about how we’re approaching the project…We’re talking about thousands of hours of work.”

Areas within the building are being cordoned off to contain lead dust and workers must wear protective gear, including respirators and special suits, as they go about their tasks. A literal top-to-bottom scrubbing will be required to decontaminate the structure.

Even so, the project remains on schedule to finish up next year, with county departments, including the Sheriff’s Department and the District Attorney’s office, still on track to move in by early 2015. The lead abatement work itself is expected to wrap up by this October.

The funding for the lead removal comes from $16.9 million set aside in the project budget to cover unanticipated changes that crop up during the construction process. The overall budget for the project, which is being financed by long-term bonds, is $231.7 million.

This is not the building’s first brush with lead problems. When open fire escapes on two sides of the building were set to be cleaned out as part of the renovation project, workers found 4½-foot-high heaps of pigeon droppings on just about every floor, said James Kearns, the Public Works division head whose team is overseeing the project. Testing on the pigeon guano found lead as well as the more expected pathogens, resulting in an earlier $36,415 abatement effort.

The pigeons haven’t spared the surface of the building, either. Behind scaffolding, cleaning is now underway to restore the hall’s dingy grey exterior to its original white—the same color as nearby Los Angeles City Hall. But getting it done meant encountering decades-old droppings amid the colonnade of Romanesque columns along the building’s upper floors—“an interesting discovery,” as project executive Zinberg puts it.

As for the lead abatement, the latest twist in long-running efforts to bring the Hall of Justice back to life, workers are taking it all in stride. “Right now, we’re moving along and getting through it,” said Kearns, of Public Works. “It’s not an easy job but it’s all under control.”

For a look inside the building during an earlier phase in the construction process, click here.

Lead paint on structural steel beams was found under concrete coating. Photo/Clark Construction

Posted 5/15/13

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