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Grand jury to probe Cedar Rapids school asbestos removal

Former subcontractor called to testify about 2013 Jefferson High project

Brent Busch, a former electrical subcontractor, took this photo at Cedar Rapids Jefferson High School on June 26, 2013,
Brent Busch, a former electrical subcontractor, took this photo at Cedar Rapids Jefferson High School on June 26, 2013, during a project that included asbestos removal. He was concerned at the time about lack of plastic sheeting or air filters to keep asbestos material from contaminating the school. (Photo by Brent Busch)

CEDAR RAPIDS — A federal grand jury will consider possible criminal charges relating to asbestos removal at Jefferson High School in 2013, according to a former subcontractor subpoenaed to testify before the panel in January.

Brent Busch, of Cedar Rapids, this week received a subpoena from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Criminal Investigation Division, based in Lenexa, Kan., to testify before a grand jury Jan. 9 at the federal courthouse in Cedar Rapids.

Busch, who was an electrical subcontractor during a geothermal upgrade at Jefferson in the summer of 2013, said an EPA agent called him Monday to say she wanted him to testify about what he saw at Jefferson and, specifically, about a photo he took June 26, 2013, that appears to show asbestos removal being done without adequately protecting workers and others in the school from airborne exposure to the cancer-causing substance.

“There was just this 3-inch wide caution tape,” Busch said in an interview. “Anyone with a brain knows that’s not going to stop any asbestos.”

The focus of the federal investigation isn’t clear from the subpoena or from Busch’s conversation with Adrienne Ciolli, a special agent with the EPA’s Criminal Investigation Division. But Cedar Rapids school district officials said they are not a target.

“The District cannot comment on the existence of any potential investigation other than to say that if there is an investigation regarding this matter, the District is confident that it is not the target of that investigation,” spokeswoman Akwi Nji said in an email Wednesday.

Nji was not able to confirm Thursday the asbestos contractor hired by the district to work on Jefferson.

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In August, the district reached a settlement with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources over asbestos violations found during a 2015 construction project at Washington High School.

In that project, the Iowa DNR found the district and Abatement Specialties, a Cedar Rapids contractor, did not remove all asbestos-containing material from the building and did not adequately wet the material or seal it in leak-tight containers or wrapping.

In the settlement, filed Aug. 30 in Linn County District Court, the district admitted “sufficient evidence exists for the court to enter a finding of the violations,” but denied liability.

The district agreed to produce a video on asbestos requirements within schools and make it available online to Iowa districts by spring.

The state’s case involving Abatement Specialties and the Washington High work still is open, said Geoff Greenwood, spokesman for the Iowa Attorney General.

The Gazette sought comment from Abatement Specialties. A detailed message left Wednesday morning with an office employee was not returned by a company executive. Later in the day, man who answered the phone declined to comment.

This is the latest development in a story that started July 8, 2015, when Washington High School was closed after air tests showed unacceptable levels of asbestos air fibers in the air during a three-year project to replace its heating and ventilation system.

When Busch saw news reports about the Washington closure, he remembered having similar concerns when he worked on Jefferson’s geothermal upgrade in 2013. At the time of the Jefferson project, he noticed a lack of tenting to confine asbestos materials and took photos. He talked with several project leaders, he said, but was told air tests did not show a problem.

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While school was not in session during the Jefferson construction, there were workers in the building as well as occasionally teachers, administrators and students who came for summer camps, Busch said.

Busch said he called the Iowa DNR in fall 2015 and left a detailed voicemail about what he’d seen at Jefferson, but did not receive a return call.

He talked with KGAN-TV in February 2016 about the lack of action.

Busch said he was surprised Monday when Ciolli called, asking whether he would be available to testify Jan. 9 in Cedar Rapids about the asbestos removal at Jefferson. She followed up with an emailed subpoena, which Busch showed The Gazette.

A grand jury, which consists of 16 to 23 community members, listens to evidence presented by a federal prosecutor to determine if there is probable cause to believe a person or entity has committed a crime and should stand trial. If the grand jury decides there is enough evidence, it will issue an indictment.

Grand jury hearings are private since they can end without any indictments.

“I can’t comment on any grand jury activity,” Ciolli told The Gazette.

l Comments: (319) 339-3157; erin.jordan@thegazette.com

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