- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 8, 2001

School officials and contractors say the city health department is overstating the risk of asbestos exposure in D.C. schools, costing the school system hundreds of thousands of dollars in questionable cleanup costs and creating unnecessary panic among parents.
The D.C. Department of Health has cracked down on contractors doing work at schools in the wake of an incident at Watkins Elementary in March, suspending one asbestos-abatement contractor and investigating two others for failing to meet safety standards.
School officials say the health inspectors are overreacting, and that the crackdown has slowed or halted critical construction work at 20 D.C. schools.
Theodore Gordon, chief operating officer for the health department, said the criticism directed at his inspectors is unwarranted.
"It doesnt surprise me that people are running for cover now that we are trying to expose them," he said. "The contractors are supposed to check for asbestos and they didnt. So we are moving forward with enforcement actions."
Mr. Gordon also accused school officials of ignoring safety procedures.
"It seems like everyone is standing in a circle and pointing to the person next to them," said Louis Erste, chief operating officer for the school system. "It demonstrates the lack of systems put in place."
School officials say the incident at Watkins Elementary illustrates a growing problem for the school system: a health department that is too quick to classify a school as dangerous, putting an already cash-strapped system under more stress. Asbestos-abatement projects are expected to cost the system more than $25 million in fiscal year 2001.
Since the episode at Watkins, two more schools, Savoy Elementary and Parkview Elementary, have been closed, and health officials are considering shutting down all or part of at least 20 other school sites this week.
this week.
At Watkins, health inspectors reported high levels of asbestos and blasted contractors for failing to check for the carcinogen. But school officials and contractors point out earlier air-quality tests showed negative levels. Health officials, according to school sources, have misread the Watkins air-quality tests and others. They contend that the positive readings resulted when the second contractor disturbed the asbestos. Still, the system had to pay for five days of cleanup and testing. Cost to the city: $102,000.
The situation doesnt surprise anyone familiar with the politics and finances associated with asbestos.
"Its big business," said former facilities director Kifah Jayyousi, who was fired in April, in part over the situation at Watkins. "Our lack of control over construction and our faulty asbestos-management plans have cost us millions … without improving the safety for children."
Most of the citys decades-old schools have asbestos under tile, in ceilings or around boilers. The toxic material, linked to cancer, is only dangerous if it is disturbed, usually during construction.
With hundreds of ongoing construction projects in the schools, the proper procedure for contractors is to review health department-approved asbestos-management plans before beginning work. If asbestos is likely to be disturbed, the area is supposed to be sealed, abated and retested after it is finished.
That is not what happened at Watkins.
In late December, the school system ordered an asbestos assessment before ceiling and other renovation work was to begin, school system documents show. In February, PCM Analytics Inc. performed the pre-renovation survey, which showed asbestos on the fourth floor only, none on the first floor. The area above the first floor was not checked by contractors putting in a new ceiling, and they missed asbestos around a ceiling duct. School officials say contractors arent required to check what isnt mentioned in the management plans. Health inspectors disagree.
In March, a city health inspector, responding to complaints in the building regarding asthma, found the asbestos that had been missed.
On March 13, IT Corp., a Washington-based asbestos-management firm, hired L&M; Environmental Services to follow up on the inspectors report. Each of the 12 air tests performed by the subcontractor came up negative. In-depth analysis of five samples the company collected also was negative. One sample contained a single asbestos fiber. Under federal law, 349 fibers are allowed.
The next evening, IT Corp. sent in another subcontractor, AirCheck Environmental Services, to test, along with an abatement company, Envirobate Global, to clean and vacuum. Aircheck reported two instances of unsafe levels. One, in a first-floor hallway, was brought under control, sources said. Another in a staircase was not, sources said. The contractor didnt remove any asbestos.
Meanwhile, health officials told the public that samples collected in the hallway were 100 times the level deemed safe for children under federal guidelines.
School sources and experts say the high levels were recorded because the asbestos was disturbed by a vacuum, then allowed to settle in what they deemed an improper abatement method.
They add that if the level found was representative of the air in the area, that would mean that 973 million fibers were floating in the hallway. Thats highly unlikely, they noted.
"How could register at such outrageous levels when it wasnt picked up on tests the day before or after, or on tests conducted the same time nearby," said one federal investigator who declined to be named. "Something isnt right here."
Yesterday, everyone involved in construction and abatement met to hammer out the confusion, set clear policies and receive training on asbestos to be able to get back to business until the next incident.
"Its just for show," said a school official privately. "Until they change those plans or revisit their contracts, it will be business as usual."

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