- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 15, 2003

D.C. public schools’ inadequate plan for detecting asbestos has cost the District thousands of dollars for unnecessary tests and cleanups, a federal consultant says.

The consultant, Brian K. Kasher, said in written testimony to a House Appropriations subcommittee that site inspections preceding school construction projects missed asbestos in buildings. He is scheduled to meet with school board officials this month to discuss his report.

Mr. Kasher also said the inadequate plan, not contractors as reported last year by the General Accounting Office, was the cause of asbestos scares in the schools.

Mr. Kasher said he tried to tell D.C. Department of Health officials two years ago that the school system needed a better plan and that contractors were not to blame.

“The health department’s agenda of targeting field contractors completely misses the root cause for the asbestos problem,” he said.

Mr. Kasher, who monitored air quality as a consultant for D.C. schools in 2001, says he thinks the health department also failed in its legal responsibility to provide oversight and that health officials overstated asbestos risks in at least four city schools that had no such hazards.

The Washington Times reported in 2001 that school officials accused the health department of overstating asbestos risks that led to panic among parents and school closures, and cost the school system hundreds of thousands of dollars in questionable cleanup costs. School asbestos-abatement projects are expected to cost the D.C. school system about $20 million annually.

Ted Gordon, senior deputy director of the D.C. Department of Health, said last week that he is “standing by his comments” made two years ago that contractors and school officials were responsible. He also said criticism of health department inspectors was not warranted.

Most of the city’s 146 schools are decades old and have asbestos under tile, in ceilings or around boilers. The toxic material, linked to cancer, is dangerous only if it is disturbed and becomes airborne, usually during construction.

Contractors making repairs in schools must review the school’s asbestos-management plans before beginning work. If asbestos is likely to be disturbed, the area is supposed to be sealed, abated and re-tested after the project is finished.

Mr. Kasher said the problem is that information is omitted from the plans so contractors have no knowledge of asbestos dangers when they start working.

Sarah Woodhead, director of facilities for D.C. schools, said the department aggressively tests for asbestos during construction projects.

“The DCPS asbestos program is exemplary,” she said, declining further comment.

In spring 2001, health inspectors reported high levels of asbestos at Watkins Elementary and blamed contractors for not checking for it.

School officials and contractors said initial tests showed nonhazardous levels of asbestos. Health officials responded by saying school officials misread the air-quality tests.

A second test found asbestos in a hallway duct, but it was not a hazard because it wasn’t airborne. The school system paid for five days of cleanup and testing. It cost the city $102,000 and no asbestos was removed.

Mr. Kasher said that similar situations occurred at Hines Elementary, and Coolidge and Wilson senior high schools.

He fears that the overzealous response is connected to the same contractors also being responsible for asbestos oversight, air monitoring and asbestos removal.

After the incident at Watkins Elementary, city health officials suspended one asbestos-abatement contractor and investigated two others for not meeting safety standards. They were cleared, but one asbestos contractor to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers working on D.C. schools was convicted of fraud.

Last year, the president and vice president of the District-based Industrial Hygiene Technologies, an asbesto-management company working at Coolidge Senior High School, were indicted on charges of making false statements and falsifying asbestos-training certifications for some of their employees.

Also, a D.C. Department of Health official involved with asbestos abatement at Watkins Elementary has been charged with bribing and extorting contractors to falsify air-test results at the Benning Road Solid Waste Transfer Facility in Northeast. Air-quality regulator and asbestos inspector Jeffrey DeWhite Edwards is awaiting trial on charges of trying to charge contractors $10,000 last year to relax environmental standards. Mr. Edwards no longer works for the health department.

“You have foxes guarding the chicken coops,” Mr. Kasher said. “And this is what happens.”

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