* Construction manager is defendant in asbestos lawsuits
* Skanska says the negligence lawsuits "have no merit"
By Louis Charbonneau
UNITED NATIONS, April 17 (Reuters) - The United Nations sought to reassure its increasingly nervous staff on Friday, saying that the removal of toxic asbestos during a major renovation project at U.N. headquarters would be done safely.
"In addition to the company that will be performing the asbestos abatement, we will have another independent group that will monitor how the abatement process is carried out, and ... try to ensure that it’s done in a safe manner," U.N. spokesman Farhaq Haq told reporters.
Haq was responding to concerns about the removal of the cancer-causing flame-retardant asbestos lining the ceiling tiles of the U.N. building raised by Stephen Kisambira, president of the U.N. staff union, during a rare news conference on Thursday.
Kisambira said many people working at U.N. headquarters were worried about the $2 billion renovation project, intended to make the blue-green tinted 40-story building along Manhattan’s East River safer, more comfortable and greener.
Skanska USA Building, a unit of Nordic building firm Skanska (SKAb.ST), is the construction manager and will be overseeing the asbestos removal. Haq said ATC Associates, an independent environmental engineering, health and safety specialist, will be monitoring the process.
New York architect Michael Adlerstein, who is overseeing the renovation of the United Nations, gave further details on the work that ATC would be doing.
As a certified independent consultant it would be "taking air samples several times a day at prescribed locations inside and outside the work area," he told Reuters in an e-mail.
But Kisambira said he still has concerns, partly because of doubts raised by ongoing legal action involving allegations of negligence on the part of Skanska during the removal of asbestos from a courthouse in Salinas, California, in 2005-06.
When asked about the case, Adlerstein said that "all charges were dismissed in 2007." But Skanska spokeswoman Jessica Murray acknowledged that nearly 200 personal injury lawsuits related to the courthouse case were still pending.
"Individuals who worked in the courthouse asserted claims against Skanska, the county’s program manager and others, alleging a negligent release of asbestos in connection with the courthouse renovation," Murray said.
"The claims against Skanska have no merit and Skanska is vigorously defending against them," she added.
Adlerstein did not comment on the lawsuits.
Kisambira said the Salinas case was one of the reasons people working at U.N. headquarters were nervous.
"It’s a dangerous situation," he told Reuters. "They’re playing with the lives of all of us."
Another problem, Kisambira said, is that contractors removing the asbestos cannot be sued in case of accidents because of the special legal status of the United Nations, which is technically not U.S. territory.
Adlerstein acknowledged that they could not be sued.
"In case of disputes, arbitration will be sought, rather than to revert to formal litigation," he said. "This has been the practice since the founding of the U.N. and its aim is to protect the U.N., not the vendor." (Editing by Eric Beech)