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The Microscopes Battle: When Is a School 'Clean'?

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In the summer of l983, asbestos was removed from Vineland High School in New Jersey. The job, according to Hoag Levins, co-author of the book Asbestos Removal and Control, "has a reputation of being the worst asbestos-removal job known in recent years in the United States."

According to press reports, windows were left open during removal and others that were broken were not repaired. Subsequently, a "dust storm" of asbestos, capable of contaminating a neighborhood, was visible outside the building. Packages of asbestos that had been taken to a local landfill were reportedly refused because they had been packaged improperly.

But an engineer familiar with the Vineland school situation does not agree the removal was "the worst."

"There are many, many removal jobs which are just as bad," said Chip D'Angelo, president of Kaselaan and D'Angelo Associates, a New Jersey environmental-engineering company and testing laboratory that was hired to consult with Vineland school officials on their asbestos work. "The Vineland job," he added, "is not uncommon from what we've seen."

Shoddy Work

Shoddy asbestos-removal procedures are common for a number of reasons, say those who work, consult, or monitor projects for school districts that contract to remove or lessen exposure to asbestos.

The problem starts, they say, with faulty job specfications, written by people unfamiliar with building construction or asbestos work. It is worsened, they add, when school officials hire inexperienced contractors and those who cut corners to win the contract, which school districts are usually required to award to the lowest bidder.

"The beginning and end of the entire problem is the low bid," Mr. D'Angelo said. "Every government entity is required to take the low-bid contractor. Nine times out of 10, he is the least competent contractor."

"There are asbestos-removal contractors who are so cheap we can't understand their bids," Mr. D'An-gelo added. "Sometimes they're half our estimates or lower."

In its guidance documents, the Environmental Protection Agency warns school officials against hiring an asbestos contractor based solely on the amount of the bid. "Successful abatement, not cost minimization, should be the goal," reads the document. "A premium may well be justified to help assure success."

Contractor Violations

An Aug. 29 report of the New Jersey Public Advocate's Office cites other reasons for shoddy work:

A "disorganized" and "haphazard" inspection program.

"Grossly overworked" and "minimally trained" inspectors.

School-board members who "look the other way" to avoid delayed school openings.

A lack of qualified contractors.

An inadequate contractor-certification program.

Confusion among governmental agencies over authority and respon-sibility.

An absence of licensing or certification procedures for air-monitoring and testing firms.

Difficulties Nationwide

The New Jersey report touched off a furor in the state, but the situa-tions it described can be seen across the country, those familiar with asbestos-removal problems say.

Linda Lampkin, director of research for the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, testifed at an epa public hearing in May that the union found in a survey of its members, who include more than 110,000 school employees, a "shocking absence of proper procedures."

"The use of proper work protections, such as respirators [breathing devices to remove particles from the inhaled air], work clothing, lockers, and showers, is extremely rare," she said. "Measures to protect children and other building occupants, such as dust barriers maintained under negative-air pressure, decontamination areas, air monitoring, and proper disposal procedures are also sorely lacking."

"Almost nowhere did our members seem confident that the asbestos problems in their buildings were being analyzed properly or being dealt with adequately," Ms. Lampkin concluded. "The horror stories you will hear today ... are not isolated examples of unacceptable procedures, but common occurrences."

Unqualified Contractors

Part of the reason for the poor work performance is the lack of qualified asbestos contractors.

"When you say asbestos contractors, that includes anyone from the lumberyard workers when they're slow, to plumbers, to pipe-cutters, to painters, to anybody," said Anthony Natale, co-author of Asbestos Removal and Control and president of the Duall Corporation in Mount Laurel, N.J., a firm specializing in asbestos removal.

"The problem is that people are coming out of the woodwork," added his co-author, Mr. Levins. "They see there is a lot of money being made."

"The paint contractors who yesterday made $25,000 painting a school now realize they can make half a million dollars if they do asbestos removal," he added. "The next day they can put an ad in the newspaper and call themselves an asbestos-removal company."

According to Mr. Levins, it is estimated that there are around 2,500 to 3,000 contractors in the United States that handle asbestos removal. "I would say that about 10 percent of all asbestos-removal contractors do it right and know what they are doing," Mr. Levins said.

"The most commmon error one encounters on a job site is inadequate supervision," said Marshall H. Marcus Jr., a certified industrial hygienist from Prince George's County, Va., who was hired by the Philadelphia school system to monitor its asbestos-control jobs.

"You have to have a supervisor who knows what he is doing," he added. "If you don't, then the whole job is probably going to be done poorly. It doesn't matter whether you have a good specification, it doesn't even make a difference if you have a good consultant who knows what's going on. If the person actually directing the workers day in and day out is not competent, then you can expect a poor job. It's just a matter of degree of how poor it's going to be."

Worker Violations

According to the report of the New Jersey Public Advocate's Office, a watchdog agency in the state's executive branch, asbestos-removal workers were seen flushing asbestos down toilets; transporting it to unknown destinations in their cars; working in contaminated areas without protective clothing or respirators; and tracking asbestos from contaminated areas to uncontaminated areas.

"It is well documented that the improper removal of asbestos can be far more hazardous than if the asbestos is not removed at all," the advocate's report concluded.

'Not Accomplishing Intent'

According to Mr. Natale, most asbestos-control work throughout the country is "not accomplishing the intent."

"They're accomplishing the opposite," he said. "[School officials] are getting more fibers in the air than before they removed the asbestos. So if you're asking, 'Is money being wasted by creating a problem, by not accomplishing the intent?' the answer is yes.

"In probably 95 percent of the jobs, Mr. Natale said, "money is being wasted because school officials are not getting a clean building."

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