News

State sues Cedar Rapids asbestos company over work at Washington High School

Investigator found airborne particles during 2015 inspection

Washington High School in Cedar Rapids is shown in October 2015 as a $30 million, three-year renovation was ending. A state inspector that summer found asbestos was not being removed correctly, and the school closed temporarily. On Thursday, the state sued the Cedar Rapids company handling the asbestos removal. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Washington High School in Cedar Rapids is shown in October 2015 as a $30 million, three-year renovation was ending. A state inspector that summer found asbestos was not being removed correctly, and the school closed temporarily. On Thursday, the state sued the Cedar Rapids company handling the asbestos removal. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — The state of Iowa filed a lawsuit Thursday against a Cedar Rapids company for asbestos removal violations that occurred during renovations at Washington High School in 2014 and 2015.

The lawsuit was filed Thursday morning in Linn County District Court, according to Lynn Hicks of the Iowa Attorney General’s Office.

The suit asserts Abatement Specialties failed to thoroughly inspect and remove asbestos before renovation, failed to adequately wet the material and failed to carefully lower it to the ground during removal.

Hicks said Abatement Specialties could face a civil penalty of up to $10,000 a day for each violation.

The lawsuit shows the Iowa Department of Natural Resources received an anonymous phone complaint in June 2015 stating that Abatement Specialties left asbestos debris throughout the school.

Tom Wuehr, a DNR environmental specialist, visited the school in June and July and found several issues. 

His investigation revealed both asbestos debris and airborne particles outside containment areas in the school while teachers, staff, students and construction workers were present, according to the lawsuit.

The district closed the school based on Wuehr’s recommendation during the abatement and removed Abatement Specialties from the project, according to the suit.

The DNR sent violation letters to the company and school district in July 2015. The violations were referred to the Iowa Attorney General’s Office in 2016.

David Bloss, president and owner of Abatement Specialties, didn’t respond Thursday to an email request for comment.

In August 2017, the Cedar Rapids school district reached a consent decree with the state over the violations, according to the Iowa Attorney General’s Office.

As part of the settlement, the district produced a series of videos to inform and educate Iowa school officials on proper asbestos identification, mitigation and removal.

Abatement Specialties also was involved in asbestos removal at Jefferson High in 2013.

A subcontractor told The Gazette in December 2017 he was being subpoenaed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Criminal Investigation Division, based in Lenexa, Kan., to testify before a federal grand jury in U.S. District Court in Cedar Rapids.

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

The focus of the federal investigation wasn’t clear at that time, but Cedar Rapids school district officials said they were not a target of the probe.

• Comments: (319) 398-8318; trish.mehaffey@thegazette.com

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.