The asbestos had remained harmlessly compressed into the tile lining ASU's Memorial Union basement floor for decades.
But, in one day in August 2006, workers ripped out more than 5,000 square feet of carcinogen-packed material without taking a single precaution. Asbestos swirled into the basement air, tests would later confirm, to be inhaled by members of the Arizona State University community.
Then workers carted the contaminated tile through the food court and upstairs to open-air dumpsters, potentially leaving a toxic mist throughout the university's busiest building.
It was several hours before ASU environmental safety officials realized what was happening.
That hazard cost the university $44,000 in fines from Maricopa County, plus $52,000 to sponsor a series of seminars on asbestos handling, including one today at the Tempe campus. ASU is required to put on a seminar at each of its four campuses.
University officials deny any fault in the incident, instead blaming the outside contractor that they argue removed the tile without approval.
The Memorial Union asbestos release triggered the county's air quality department to cite ASU for nine different violations. Among them, the county alleged that the university failed to test the material before removing it and failed to take measures to prevent the asbestos from becoming airborne.
Scott I. MacDonald, the county's asbestos inspections supervisor, checked on the Memorial Union incident after receiving a complaint.
County air quality officials listed the ASU alleged violations as "major" due to asbestos' "extremely high" toxicity, enforcement records show. A "medium amount" of asbestos was released into the air.
Asbestos poses no health risk unless it becomes airborne. Even still, a person typically must be exposed to the material over the long term before experiencing any of the serious illnesses associated with asbestos, like lung cancer.
Those exposed to asbestos at the Memorial Union are unlikely to experience any asbestos-related health problems.
"In this particular case, I would say no," MacDonald said.
The tile removal took place when classes were not in session.
Following the Memorial Union asbestos release, ASU hired three additional environmental safety officials to handle asbestos issues and prevent similar hazards in the future, Terri Shafer, a university spokeswoman, wrote in response to Tribune questions.
Nevertheless, another incident took place in October 2007, when a university building official directed workers to remove a porch roof from the Lyceum Theater that was filled with asbestos. The Arizona Department of Occupational Safety and Health cited the university for a "non-serious" violation of federal safety laws in connection with the roof removal.
The asbestos release at the Memorial Union came as the university began a project to replace carpet.
Kristian Luce, co-owner of Hoodlums Music, which then operated out of the ASU Memorial Union basement, said he watched the tile removal with his business partner, Steve Wiley.
"Me and Steve were sitting there saying, 'Doesn't that look like old asbestos flooring?'" Luce said.
ASU had hired a contractor, Re:Source Arizona, for the project, which had in turn hired a subcontractor, PowerTech Flooring Removal, to clear the way for the new carpet. On Aug. 7, 2006, PowerTech employees used a machine "designed to remove flooring by use of rotating blades," according to a report on the incident written by Dave Jaggers, an ASU asbestos specialist.
University environmental safety officials knew the tile floor likely contained asbestos, but were not aware the flooring was being torn out.
Mike Matthies, then director of the Memorial Union, ordered the contractor to begin work. Shafer said that direction did not include removing the tile.
Luce said he and Wiley closed Hoodlums, which they moved to a new location in south Tempe last year, that afternoon and were alarmed at what they found upon returning to the shop that evening.
"Everyone's walking around in asbestos suits and things are all taped off," Luce said.
ASU officials, who shut down and cleared the area where workers removed flooring, were concerned about the impact on people like Luce.
"What's different with the MU episode is the many kinds of people who were working in and around the area of the disturbance: food servers, cashiers, sales persons, custodians," Eric Ram, then an ASU asbestos specialist, wrote to another university official at the time. "Also, students were walking and eating in the vicinity."
Matthies could not be reached for comment Tuesday. He left ASU to do food service design for Webb Design in California.
ASU denied that it could find any e-mail records showing that Matthies told Re:Source Arizona to begin work. However, the contractor provided county air quality officials with records showing that Matthies did just that.
"Please move forward or yes 'Go,'" Matthies wrote to the contractor more than a week before the tile was removed.
"Their style was just to steamroll through things," Luce said of ASU's Memorial Union managers. "Just some work crew shows up and starts ripping things out. No one was checking what they were doing."