PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — More than two months after the May Apartments building was engulfed in flames, owners are making plans for its demolition and — eventually — reopening the nearby streets.

But contractors say they have one more hurdle before they can bring the burned building down: Asbestos.

KOIN 6 learned from the City of Portland’s Bureau of Development Services that contractors tested the wreckage and found materials containing asbestos. The building will require special treatment to prevent the carcinogenic material from going airborne during demolition.

“In terms of the deconstruction process, there are very specific guidelines that you have to follow. It mainly includes wetting that material because it keeps the fibers from flying around,” said Harry Esteve with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. “If you keep it wet, keep it moist…then there’s very specific ways of handling it, and then disposing of it.”

Originally, the city said the contractor could recover any salvageable resident items before demolition. Now the DEQ says the asbestos released during the fire makes recovery unlikely.

“I know there was some interest in retrieving some materials but those asbestos fibers, unfortunately, really stick to soft material like clothes and carpets, that sort of thing,” Esteve said.

It’s not the first hit residents have faced since the devastating fire. Back in June, KOIN 6 reported that neighbors had learned of suspected looting from the Multnomah Co. District Attorney’s office after some residents found that the credit cards they left behind had new charges. 

As for air local pollution, Esteve said that the plumes of smoke found over Northwest Portland the day of the fire are of little concern.

  • An aerial view of the May Apartments at SW 14th and Taylor in Portland one week after a 4-alarm fire destroyed the building, May 23, 2023 (KOIN)
  • The forensic investigation into the May Apartment fire began May 23, 2023 (KOIN)

“When a building catches fire, it can turn the asbestos essentially into airborne ash, asbestos fibers, they can spread, they can get in amongst materials. If it’s just in smoke and it drifts away, it’s not really a concern, because it’s too far, airborne and it gets dispersed,” Esteve said. “If it’s concentrated in a specific area, health problems occur, and I’m not a health expert, but health problems occur over long-term exposure. There isn’t an immediate health threat as far as we know but still, you want to be really careful around that material.”

The City of Portland says demolition is authorized to begin as soon as possible once the permit is good to go. Preparations could begin as early as this week. However, contractors estimate it could take up to six weeks to finish.