Education

Newstrack: DNR says communication, oversight problems led to asbestos at Washington High School

More than 100 construction workers were in building earlier this summer

New 90-degree elbows were installed on overhead pipes during asbestos remediation work at Cedar Rapids Washington High S
New 90-degree elbows were installed on overhead pipes during asbestos remediation work at Cedar Rapids Washington High School in southeast Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Thursday, August 13, 2015. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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Background

Washington High School in Cedar Rapids was closed July 8 after an air sample test showed asbestos fibers in the air above an acceptable level during a renovation project. School employees returned to the school after a cleanup effort, and most of the building will open on time for the start of school Aug. 24.

What's happened since

Communication and oversight problems led to the release of asbestos into the air at Washington High School earlier this summer, possibly exposing more than 100 construction workers to the carcinogen, an Iowa Department of Natural Resources environmental specialist said this week.

Tom Wuehr, the DNR specialist who has been investigating the situation, found both the Cedar Rapids Community School District and Abatement Specialties, LLC in violation of EPA asbestos regulations in letters sent last month. Abatement Specialties is the contractor that performed asbestos abatement work during the renovation project.

One or both of those parties could face civil penalties from the DNR of up to $10,000, or of as high as $500,000 if the case is taken up by the state attorney general, Wuehr said this week.

The fact that Abatement Specialties contracted directly with the district — rather than with general contractor Woodruff Construction LLC of Iowa City — seemed to cause coordination challenges among the contractors, Wuehr said. Wuehr said the asbestos contamination could have been avoided if Woodruff had overseen Abatement Specialties.

But that arrangement is typical for district construction projects, said Rob Kleinsmith, the district's manager of buildings and grounds. Abatement Specialties was included in weekly construction meetings to coordinate contractors' work schedules, Kleinsmith said.

The district removed Abatement Specialties from the project on July 16 after the DNR requested that day that it do so, the district said.

This is the first time the district has had an issue with Abatement Specialties, Kleinsmith said, and he's confident it will not happen again.

“I feel strongly the district did not do anything incorrectly on this project,” Kleinsmith said.

Among the 15 contractors working in the building between June 8 and July 15, seven had a combined 119 workers at Washington, Wuehr said. He had not yet received information from the other eight.

That number also does not include school or Abatement Specialties employees, Wuehr said. He stressed that it is difficult to know whether any person breathed in asbestos fibers.

The district and Abatement Specialties did not remove all asbestos-containing material from the building; adequately wet the material; or seal the material in leak-tight containers or wrapping, according to the letters Wuehr sent last month.

Abatement Specialties already has been cited and paid a $625 penalty for its violations of the Iowa Occupational Safety and Health Act, said Jens Nissen, an Iowa OSHA administrator.

Abatement Specialties employees intentionally broke panels of asbestos-containing material so they would fit into a disposal container, among other violations, according to the OSHA citation.

David Bloss, the president of Abatement Specialties, was not available for comment Thursday.

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