With all its aging, asbestos-ridden housing stock, the Seattle Housing Authority is a major client for companies that perform asbestos abatement. This year, SHA advertised a pair of million-dollar-plus projects: the demolition at the Rainier Vista low-income housing complex and the one at High Point in West Seattle.
A Vancouver, Washington–based firm called 3 Kings Environmental submitted the lowest bid, $1,041,244, for Rainier Vista. That was $1,500 cheaper (or roughly one-tenth of 1 percent) than the next lowest, and 3 Kings won the job. This week it will submit its bid for High Point. Those in the field say 3 Kings is the favorite to win again.
Seattle-area union officials allege that 3 Kings thrives in a construction climate that rewards the ruthless: A contractor who cuts corners on worker pay and worker safety can afford to bid low and, thus, land major contracts. Crucial to that success, say union officials, is an illegal-immigrant workforce desperate enough to accept low wages and dangerous work conditions.
Steve Marquardt, a spokesman for the Northwest Regional Organizing Coalition, says 3 Kings "brings down the standards around the industry."
3 Kings CEO Ron King did not return numerous phone calls.
Jerry Ball, an NROC organizer, claims to have spoken to 3 Kings workers who told him they were not legal residents. Ball has sought to convince those workers to join a union, which he says would offer them protections they wouldn't have as illegal immigrants. (The Stranger could find no evidence that formal complaints have been filed against 3 Kings for hiring illegal immigrants.)
Asbestos is a particularly perilous aspect of construction work. Typically, a firm must hire workers who have completed training in working with asbestos. Asbestos must be sprayed with water to prevent its fine fibers from becoming airborne, where they could be inhaled; once breathed, asbestos fibers never leave the lungs and are linked to cancer.
In February, 3 Kings was cited by a state inspector for leaving accumulations of asbestos dust on the floor and entrance to the Cleveland High School gym and for its failure to monitor the asbestos content of the air—a requirement for worker safety.
During the 2003 demolition of the Kirkland Junior High gym, a 1,200-pound wall fell on a 3 Kings worker who, according to the inspector, had not been properly trained for safety and suffered severe injuries.
Union officials made sure that SHA knew this history before it awarded the Rainier Vista contract to 3 Kings, but agency spokeswoman Virginia Felton says that the other companies that bid had safety records that "weren't dramatically better" than 3 Kings'.