K-12 Education

DNR: Asbestos regulations not followed at Washington High School

Building closed this week after fibers found in air

The exterior of Washington High School in Cedar Rapids. (courtesy Cedar Rapids Community School District)
The exterior of Washington High School in Cedar Rapids. (courtesy Cedar Rapids Community School District)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Workers at Washington High School did not follow the correct procedures for containing and removing asbestos, leading to its release into the air and the closure of the building this week, two environmental specialists with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources said Thursday.

The building was closed Wednesday after one air sample test done by Shive-Hattery, Inc. found a level of asbestos fibers above the acceptable level, said DNR environmental specialist Tom Wuehr.

Workers this summer have been completing the third and final year of a project to replace the building's heating and ventilation system, said Rob Kleinsmith, the Cedar Rapids Community School District's manager of buildings and grounds. The DNR visited the building last week, he said.

The district has known about asbestos in the building, and in most Cedar Rapids schools, Kleinsmith said. The material isn't a health risk as long as it's properly contained, said Brian Hutchins, an environmental program supervisor in the DNR's air quality bureau.

But in this case, significant levels of asbestos were found outside the area where the material is usually contained, meaning workers did not comply with federal regulations for asbestos removal, Hutchins and Wuehr said.

“Someone did something not correctly,” Wuehr said by phone Thursday. “These are highly regulated processes. ... Somewhere along the line, regulations were not being followed.”

Both the school district and the contractors working in the building are responsible for following those regulations, Hutchins said.

The DNR officials and Kleinsmith said they have no way of knowing if workers were exposed to the material, which can cause cancer.

“But we know that there's asbestos in the air, and we know that there were people in there,” Wuehr said. “ ... One would assume that there was inhalation of asbestos fibers.”

It's less likely students or teachers were exposed to the asbestos, Wuehr added.

Kleinsmith said officials who enforce the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's (OSHA) regulations were at the building Monday, talking to contractors. Kathleen Uehling, an attorney with the Iowa State Plan Office in Des Moines, which enforces OSHA, declined to comment on whether the office had issued any citations to the school district or contractors.

Kleinsmith said previous tests of the air in the building's hallways have not showed problematic levels of asbestos.

Asbestos can be found in many building materials, including ceiling tiles, plaster, flooring and insulation around pipes, Hutchins said.

Officials hope to reopen the building Monday after containing the asbestos.

The district and the contractors have been fully cooperative with the DNR, Wuehr and Hutchins said.

Correction: Due to a reporter's error, a previous version of this story misstated the day on which an interview with DNR environmental specialist Tom Wuehr occurred. The interview took place on Thursday, July 9, not Wednesday, July 8.

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