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Builder to reduce 'shedding'

A vigilant tennis player works to reduce an environmentally unfriendly byproduct of constructing Vinoy Place.

By JON WILSON
© St. Petersburg Times,
published November 21, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- It started when little plastic pellets began drifting like snow flurries around a downtown resort's tennis courts.

One of the players, Scott Stewart, grew curious enough to figure out why.

"I'm not the only one who noticed it. There were other people who noticed we were being rained on by this white stuff," said Stewart, noting that some of the material landed in his coffee.

Stewart determined the beads' source: the Vinoy Place condominium and city homes project at 555 Fifth Ave. NE, next to the Renaissance Vinoy Resort.

His investigation showed that the polystyrene fragments were a potential environmental hazard. Drifting into Tampa Bay, they tended to collect at the waterline of boats moored in downtown basins. And marine researchers say the fragments can pose a hazard to seabirds that mistake them for food morsels.

After a series of meetings and letters, here's the upshot:

Irwin Contracting Inc., the Vinoy Place builder, is taking steps to keep the pellets from flying out of the construction site and into the bay, or anywhere else.

In essence, the story is one of a resident who wouldn't give up his environmental concerns and a builder who addressed them.

"We want to be good neighbors to the hotel. We're all environmentally sensitive. And we have two towers full of our own customers as well," said Innes Irwin, president of Irwin Contracting.

"That is what I've wanted from day one," said Stewart, a downtown businessman.

Stewart, who describes himself as "environmentally concerned," said he had to be persistent to make sure the contractors were listening.

The problem was the Styrofoam used on exterior walls during construction. It has to be rubbed or rasped smooth so stucco will stick to it. The process causes the Styrofoam particles to fly around. A windy day scatters them.

Stewart started his campaign during late summer 2000, when the first two towers were going up and he and other tennis players noticed the plastic beads.

At first his concerns were not well addressed, Stewart said.

But about three months ago, as construction of the last two towers was about to begin, Stewart wrote to the contractor. A meeting among Stewart, the builders and Vinoy Resort general manager Russ Bond followed.

"It was very cordial, very informative," Stewart said. "I truly believe they're genuinely going to make the effort. They've legitimized our concerns, and No. 2, said here is what we're going to do."

At the meeting, Irwin Contracting outlined its solution.

"We've tried to come up with innovative ways to keep from getting the Styrofoam beads in the air," Irwin said.

The methods include using a vacuum rasper during the rubbing, using protective plastic film to contain the particles, using tools other than saws to cut Styrofoam and thereby reduce flying debris, and making sure crews clean up well.

In addition, Irwin said, the company will get precut Styrofoam corners because much of the rasping and rubbing is done to shape corners.

The contractors are installing a floor slab every four days and have completed 10 stories, Irwin said last week.

As of then, the Styrofoam installation had not yet progressed enough to tell how effective the protective techniques will be.

"There was an immediate change when they took maybe half these steps last spring," Bond said. "I've got to believe that doing even more things will make it better."

Stewart, meanwhile, says he will remain vigilant.

"I'm not going to go away."

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