Sign up for our free newsletter
In the last days of August, parents and teachers from the Bethune Woodson African-Centered School began moving classroom materials into Taft Junior High at 18th and Perry Streets NE. The vacant red-brick building, a “swing” school that houses students and teachers displaced by facilities work in their home schools, was to serve as temporary quarters for the D.C. public charter “school within a school” that stressed an Afrocentric
While checking out their new digs, several of the Bethune Woodson parents noticed workers erecting heavy plastic barriers in one wing of Taft, where stickers on ceilings and floors warned of asbestos. During classroom hours, they soon learned, contractors would be completing a planned asbestos-abatement project.
The move-in abruptly ended. On the first day of school, Bethune Woodson faculty and students remained outside Taft’s doors, picketing until D.C. school officials assured them that the building was safe from asbestos contamination. The event caught the attention of a local bureaucrat with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), who alerted the department’s regional asbestos coordinator.
The EPA quickly responded to the call, dispatching investigators from the agency’s Philadelphia field office to the antiquated building. Though they determined that the asbestos-removal work posed no risk to students and faculty, EPA officials discovered one troubling fact: The school lacked an asbestos-management plan, as required by federal law.
Agents soon learned that the District’s without-a-net asbestos planning went beyond just one school. EPA investigators later traveled across town to Johnson Junior High, where another asbestos-abatement project was in the works. Though the work was being executed properly, the school also lacked the federally mandated asbestos-management plan on site.
As EPA officials completed a more thorough investigation throughout the system’s 146 schools, a pattern emerged: None of the schools had adequate asbestos-management plans on site or stored in a central location, as prescribed by federal law. And when they questioned D.C. school bureaucrats about the legally mandated plans’ whereabouts, EPA officials stumbled upon a litany of excuses that all translated as: The dog ate my homework.
Until two decades ago, manufacturers of asbestos-related products buried evidence linking asbestos exposure to cancer-related diseases. Medical data now prove that even brief exposure to airborne asbestos fibers may cause fatal diseases such as mesothelioma, a cancer of the lining of the lungs or abdominal cavity. But before that crucial connection became public knowledge, many public buildings were constructed with asbestos-containing products, including spray-on insulation and ceiling tiles.
Beginning in the late ’70s, the federal government laid out strict guidelines for asbestos removal to protect the public from potentially hazardous exposure. According to the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act, school systems like D.C.’s must have management plans outlining their approach to asbestos cleanup approved by their state’s governor and monitored by an appointed state agency. By January 1989, school systems across the country had to submit their plans to the approved state agents.
EPA officials confirm that the D.C. public schools did submit asbestos-management plans on time. But thanks to the legal loophole provided by the District’s unique city-state status, the school system was able to serve as its own overseeing agent. The school system centrally stored the master asbestos-management plans in its facilities office at Kramer Junior High and distributed individual copies for schools to have on location as well.
Predictably, the system worked about as well as a high school library’s strategy for holding on to the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. In 1997, when D.C. schools began extensive renovation work, including boiler and roof replacements, they apparently did so without those asbestos-management plans in place. What exactly happened to the plans is now a case worthy of Unsolved Mysteriesor, if some excuse-mongers are to be believed, Noah’s Ark.
Gene Kilby, the school system’s director of facilities, operations, and maintenance, explains that the missing documents “were destroyed because of a pipe burst at the Kramer Junior High Annex.”
“Many plans got lost in a flood. That’s what I heard,” says David Morrow, program manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Baltimore Division, which is assisting the school system on capital projects. “That’s the story I got…flood, fire, or some natural disaster.”
D.C. schools spokesperson Denise Tann spins a similar tale. “I heard that they got burned up, but I can’t really confirm that,” she says.
EPA officials do not discount Kilby, Morrow, and Tann’s natural-disaster hypothesis. “Due to some circumstances that are unusual, the management plans that the D.C. school district did have seem to have disappeared,” replies David Sternberg, an EPA spokesperson. But they have a different theory on what happened: “I heard they were destroyed because of an ice storm,” says Garry Sherman, an EPA regional asbestos coordinator who visited Taft. “The ceiling contained asbestos and it caved in….Ironic, huh?”
But what about each of the plans deposited at individual schools? “I don’t know exactly how they all disappeared,” Sternberg admits. “One was a natural occurrencethough they are supposed to have two copies, one on site and one at the Board of Education.”
When EPA officials discovered the systemwide asbestos-plan disappearance act, they asked D.C. school officials to halt work on projects until the school system developed interim asbestos-management plans to cover the work currently under construction.
“They asked us to stop our contractors, [to] develop [a plan] pertaining to the area of the school that we were doing abatement,” says Morrow. “The EPA didn’t threaten to shut down the schools; they just stopped abatement work until abatement plans were in place.”
Facilities director Kilby says many plans were indeed in place, yet lacking a few minor details. Sherman, who visited many schools personally, disputes the characterization. “In my opinion, they weren’t management plans,” he says.
School officials certainly could have used the plans at Hine Junior High, at 8th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue SE, when workers doing boiler replacement work this fall tore into an asbestos-containing wall. Students and faculty were moved to Taft until tests concluded that it was safe to re-enter Hine.
Beginning this week, according to Morrow, the corps will be conducting on-site inspections to complete comprehensive asbestos-management plans for the system once again. And discussions are also under way with the EPA to house the plans in a less catastrophic environment: Right now, there’s talk of giving them to the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs for safekeeping. Better keep the fire extinguishers on hand.CP