Some of the people testifying at an Environmental Protection Commission meeting Tuesday, Feb. 16, said staff members and students were in areas of Washington High School where they could have been exposed to asbestos.
The commission voted unanimously after the public hearing to refer the Cedar Rapids School District case, and that of Abatement Specialties, the company the district hired to conduct asbestos removal at the school, to the state Attorney General’s Office.
Kelli Book, attorney for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, has said the Attorney General’s Office first would likely work towards a settlement in the case, but if further action is warranted, could file a civil lawsuit in Linn County. The maximum penalty for each violation is $10,000 per violation per day.
About 20 people provided comment during the public comment period at the Feb. 16 meeting, including many workers from Day Mechanical and Pearson Wall, subcontractors on the renovation project at the high school. Presentations were made by the Cedar Rapids School District, including Brad Buck, School Superintendent; John Laverty, School Board President; and Brett Nitchze, School Attorney. Kelli Book spoke on behalf of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and Abatement Specialties was represented by attorney Wally Taylor, as well as another attorney and an asbestos consultant.
Violations alleged in the case include: failure to remove all regulated asbestos-containing material prior to demolition; failure to keep all regulated asbestos-containing material adequately wet; and failure to seal all asbestos-containing material in leak-tight containers.
Asbestos, a hazardous air pollutant, is a known cause of lung disease and cancer, called mesothelioma, which could occur years after exposure.
A litigation report cited contract workers at Washington High School using hammers to break up panels containing asbestos; a machine used to clean the hazardous materials exhausted into school hallways, rather than outdoors; and one room looked like a “powder bomb” had gone off during school renovations.
Suspected violations at the school date as far back as December 2014, and reached a pinnacle last summer, according to the DNR.
The school district has denied the allegations, saying the report contains inaccuracies, including that students and staff were not present where the abatement and renovation work occurred, despite a state official reporting seeing students and staff present when asbestos was in the air.
Washington Principal Ralph Plagman sent the following note to Washington families and staff after the Feb. 16, 2016, meeting:
“I want to update you again about the issue raised during our summer construction project regarding the possibility of asbestos in the main building. You may be aware that the Iowa Environmental Protection Commission has referred the DNR’s report regarding this issue to the Iowa Attorney General’s office. During the public comment portion of today’s Environmental Protection Commission meeting, some individuals made allegations that staff members and/or students were in areas of the building where there was exposed asbestos during the summer construction.
The District has concerns with today’s decision and looks forward to working with the Iowa Attorney General’s Office in resolving this matter.
It is important for me to remind everyone that many of the instances referred to in the allegations involved construction areas where students and staff were not allowed and/or at times when students and staff had been dismissed for the summer break. It also is important for me to remind everyone that the air quality in the school was intermittently checked throughout the construction project and was found to be at acceptable levels in occupied areas.”