photo/Washington High School

Cedar Rapids Washington High School

UPDATE (Dec. 7, 2015) The agenda item on asbestos has been postponed until January or February. Kelli Book, attorney for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, said school district officials are meeting with the DNR and Abatement Specialties is being allowed the same opportunity. The Cedar Rapids School District issued a response to the report. Find the full response at the end of this article, along with a note to Washington High School families.

By Cindy Hadish/Homegrown Iowan

CEDAR RAPIDS – Contract workers at Washington High School used 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, according to a litigation report.

Suspected violations at the school date as far back as December 2014, and reached a pinnacle this summer, according to documents from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

The DNR report will be considered during the Iowa Environmental Protection Commission’s Dec. 15, 2015, meeting in Windsor Heights.

Kelli Book, an attorney for the DNR, said the agency is seeking to refer the Cedar Rapids Community School District and Abatement Specialities, LLC, to the state Attorney General’s Office for enforcement action regarding alleged asbestos violations in connection with the renovation project in Cedar Rapids.

Book 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.

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.

Abatement Specialties, based in Cedar Rapids, is liable for violations as the asbestos abatement removal contractor at the school and the school district is liable for any violations as the owner of the school, according to the report.

Renovation work at Washington High School had been ongoing for more than one year and included replacement of the school’s heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system.

The school district contracted directly with Abatement Specialities for the asbestos abatement work at the school.

Asbestos, a hazardous air pollutant, is a known cause of lung disease and cancer, called
mesothelioma, which could occur years after exposure. Failure to follow proper removal and disposal techniques of regulated asbestos-containing materials creates a hazard to workers and others through the likely release of asbestos fibers. Proper removal and disposal of asbestos-containing materials is required under the Clean Air Act’s National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants.

The 11-page DNR report includes photos of broken panels that contain asbestos sitting in open containers in rooms 215 and 217 on the second-floor of Washington and other alleged violations.

In December 2014, the report notes that workers for another subcontractor indicated
that friable asbestos was found in the school’s basement. One worker stated the room looked like a “powder bomb” went off.

Notes indicated that Abatement Specialties was using a negative air machine in
containment as they cleaned the area. The negative air machine was exhausting
into the school hallway rather than outside as designed, according to the report, and dry asbestos was found in the crawl spaces of the basement area.

Records obtained by the DNR indicated that between April 9 and April 15 , there were three failed air clearance tests in the women’s locker room area. One of the failed tests was due to high asbestos counts and two were due to particulate overload. Particulate overload occurs when the air filter is loaded with so many particles that a microscopic analysis is not possible.

The records also indicated that between May 13 and May 26, there were
three failed air clearance tests in Room 027, the mechanical room, due to particulate overload.

In June, two Abatement Specialties workers were seen in Rooms 215 and 217 hitting asbestos-containing transite panels with hammers to break them up to fit in 55-gallon
barrels. According to the report, there was no water involved and no containment, and the windows and doors were open. Subcontractors were in the same area as the abatement

Also in June, air clearance tests failed in the areas of Rooms 104, 104E, 106A, and 106B due to particulate overload, the report stated, and the DNR received an anonymous telephone complaint saying that Abatement Specialties was leaving asbestos debris “all over the place at the school.”

On June 26, Tom Wuehr, a DNR environmental specialist, visited the school to investigate the complaint and observed dozens of workers at the school, along with teachers and students.

Workers with other subcontractors at the school all had concerns with the asbestos removal work that Abatement Specialities was doing, the report said, and Wuehr noted debris throughout the building that wasn’t contained. Samples of plastic wrap, insulation, pipe joints and other materials tested positive for asbestos.

On July 7, the report notes that air testing of the school library showed up to 75 asbestos fibers, above the clearance level of 71 asbestos fibers per cc of air. Wuehr contacted Rob
Kleinsmith, the school district’s building and grounds manager, and informed him that the
school needed to be closed because of an unacceptable risk of asbestos exposure
to the school occupants.

The report states that Kleinsmith questioned whether similar asbestos
levels could be found in the outside air. Wuehr stated that asbestos is a
naturally occurring mineral and may occur in outside air, but no more than
one or two fibers would be expected to be found on a pump filter running for 8
hours, if at all. Kleinsmith eventually agreed to close the school.

On July 3, all other subcontractors either left the school or did not report to the school because of their concerns.

Workers witnessed Abatement Specialties employees using a shop vacuum to clean up asbestos-containing debris, the report states, and Kleinsmith was asked to run tests to document a safe working environment, but said he was not interested in testing without justification.

On July 17, Wuehr contacted Cedar Rapids School Superintendent, Brad Buck, to request that Abatement Specialties be removed from the project because of continuous failures in the clearance sample protocol and concerns regarding the breach of asbestos containment by the Abatement Specialties workers.

“Dr. Buck was reluctant to remove Abatement Specialties from the project because of contractual obligations,” the report said. At the end of the conversation, Buck did not indicate what the district intended to do, but Wuehr was later informed that Abatement Specialties was removed from the project and that work at the school was going well.

The DNR’s review of employee records indicate that at least 119 subcontractor workers were on site at the school between June 8, 2015, and July 15, 2015. It is unknown how many school employees, students and general public were in the school during that
same time period.

The school district offered no information to parents, students or the public during that time.

Kleinsmith said he had not seen the DNR report and had not been notified of the upcoming Environmental Protection Commission meeting.

Washington High School Principal Ralph Plagman said he was only informed of the asbestos situation last summer and was unaware of any concerns dating back one year.

School district spokeswoman, Marcia Hughes, said Buck had not seen the report, but would be in discussions Monday with School Board president, John Laverty.

Abatement Specialties did not return messages asking for a response to the report.

The company’s website notes that Abatement Specialties specializes in asbestos abatement, inspections, mold remediation, lead based paint remediation, interior demolition, mechanical insulation and installation of fire stopping.

Abatement Specialties provides asbestos inspections, testing consulting and removal of asbestos containing materials in renovation and demolition projects as a certified and approved asbestos abatement company, the website states.

“Abatement Specialties has put together a team of well qualified and highly knowledgeable experts that will quickly and accurately identify and remove your asbestos problem with a complete understanding of your distinct situation,” the website says.

NOTE: The Cedar Rapids School District issued the following response today:

Student and staff safety has been and continues to be the top priority of the Cedar Rapids Community School District.

The District was notified today (Dec. 7, 2015) that the meeting with the Iowa Environmental Protection Commission scheduled for Dec. 15 has been postponed. A rescheduled date and time has not been finalized. The District has received a copy of the public litigation report and is reviewing it with legal counsel to develop a plan to discuss the concerns raised by the Department of Natural Resources.

Throughout the course of the District’s interaction with the DNR, the District has cooperated with the DNR and taken action consistent with the DNR’s directives to insure the safety of the job site immediately upon receipt of the DNR’s directives. In addition, the District has worked with the DNR, the project architect, and the contractors on site to provide a safe work environment while continuing to work on keeping the project on schedule. At this time the District has not been provided with any information indicating that any individual has tested positive for asbestos as a result of their presence at the job site. (Editor’s note: school district officials were asked what type of tests exist to indicate that someone had “tested positive” for asbestos, but no response has been given. According to the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance, cancer can develop as many as 60 years following exposure to asbestos.)

The following was issued Dec. 5 by Ralph Plagman, principal of Washington High School in Cedar Rapids:

Washington families and staff –

I want to update you regarding an issue that was raised during our summer construction effort about the possibility of asbestos in the main building. At that time, the District took immediate steps to address the concern and worked closely with the Department of Natural Resources to develop and implement a plan that ensured all areas of the building were safe. It is important to note that this situation happened after students and staff had been dismissed for the summer break. It is also 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.

You may be aware that the DNR has now issued a report to the Iowa Environmental Protection Commission regarding the situation.  District officials will meet with both organizations on Dec. 15 to review and discuss these past issues. I am writing today to re-assure you that air quality in our school building is safe.

When there is updated information on the past incident, we will share that with you.