By Cindy Hadish/Homegrown Iowan
The Iowa Department of Natural Resources has released a recording of the Environmental Protection Commission’s meeting regarding asbestos removal at Washington High School in Cedar Rapids.
Homegrown Iowan obtained a copy of the nearly 3 1/2-hour long audio recording through an open records request.
Public comments from 16 subcontractors on the renovation project at the high school were limited to 2 minutes each, but all indicated widespread issues with the asbestos removal that took place over more than a year’s time and resulted in the project being temporarily shut down in July 2015 to address those concerns.
Representatives of Washington High School immediately followed the Feb. 16 meeting with a statement saying “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.”
The workers, however, were adamant that the problems were pervasive and some described seeing students and teachers just feet away from where the project was taking place.
One of those workers was particularly impassioned in his comments to the commission, saying he witnessed hundreds of children “poisoned” through asbestos exposure and asking what the school district plans to do regarding their future health.
“I’m here with the truth and seeking justice,” he said. “Statistically, some of these kids are gonna be dying when their children are in high school, so that some people can say they were on time and on budget?… Nobody has the right to enter somebody else’s name into the death lottery.”
Listen to the worker’s comments here:
He and other workers said they wanted criminal charges filed, but the action in front of the commission allowed them only to refer the cases to the Iowa Attorney General’s Office. The commission unanimously agreed to refer cases of both the Cedar Rapids School District and Abatement Specialties, which was hired to perform the asbestos abatement, to the Attorney General.
Geoff Greenwood, communications director for the Attorney General’s Office, said the cases could potentially be referred to another division in its office to file criminal charges, but the current matters are considered civil cases. The office could choose to take no action, reach a settlement or file a civil lawsuit in each, Greenwood said, adding that the timeline was unknown.
“This could be months; it could be more than a year,” he said.
The maximum penalty is $10,000 per violation per day.
Cedar Rapids Attorney Wally Taylor, representing Abatement Specialties, questioned how a company with its longevity and good reputation could have committed the violations alleged in the case.
School district representatives said Abatement Specialties had previously worked on other school projects, including similar work at Jefferson High School, without any issues. Under questioning from a commissioner, they qualified that, and said there had been some minor issues with the work.
Workers who provided comment, mostly from Day Mechanical and Pearson Wall – subcontractors on the renovation project at Washington High School – described Abatement Specialties workers using hammers to break up asbestos-containing materials, pushing dry asbestos with a broom, vacuuming materials with a shop vac and otherwise causing the fibers to become airborne. One worker noted that the majority of the alleged violations he observed occurred before the DNR started investigating in July 2015.
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.
Several of the workers described having asbestos fibers on their clothes, which was then brought into their homes, exposing the rest of their family to the hazardous materials. Kelli Book, attorney for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, said at least 119 workers were potentially exposed to asbestos during the project.
Asbestos, a hazardous air pollutant, is a known cause of lung disease and cancer, called mesothelioma, which could occur years after exposure.