Asbestos Debacle Delays the Start of School in N.Y.C.

By Ellen Flax & Jessica Portner — September 08, 1993 9 min read
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The gargantuan chore of insuring that more than 1,000 schools are free of crumbling asbestos will delay the start of classes for this city’s one million public school students.

The school year, which was supposed to start Sept. 9, now is set to begin Sept. 20, New York City officials said late last week.

The school district was forced to conduct emergency inspections for asbestos in all of its schools after the revelation last month that many of the previous inspections apparently were conducted improperly.

Teams of asbestos inspectors and abatement workers have been working around the clock to identify and clean up asbestos-related problems.

As of last Thursday, 287 of the district’s 1,069 schools had yet to be inspected; 736 were still undergoing tests, inspections, or abatement work; and only 46 were deemed “safe for occupancy,’' according to the New York City School Construction Authority, which is supervising the effort.

The delay in the start of school became unavoidable when officials were faced with laboratory results that showed larger amounts of asbestos in schools than were previously reported. City and school officials had guaranteed that no school that had not been reinspected would open.

“This is a massive job and we weren’t going to rush this,’' said Jeff Maclin, a spokesman for Mayor David N. Dinkins.

The main concern is safeguarding the health of students in the classroom, stressed Ramon C. Cortines, who was named the district’s chancellor just last week. (See story, page 5.)

Mr. Cortines has drawn up contingency plans for families that may require additional services as a result of the delayed opening.

The district will continue to offer summer-recreation activities and school-breakfast and -lunch programs. The city has also extended the hours of operation at public day-care centers and is offering extra reading programs at public libraries.

‘A Comedy of Errors’

The current problems with asbestos came to light in a report last month by the district’s special commissioner of investigation and the inspector general for the School Construction Authority. The report suggested that the district’s efforts to comply with the federal Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act of 1986, or AHERA, were “a comedy of errors with tragic consequences.’'

The officials began to investigate the quality of federally required asbestos inspections and management plans in June, after the construction authority, which is charged with building and renovating schools, found asbestos in an elementary school that had been declared asbestos-free in its management plan.

The investigators then found “fundamental’’ inaccuracies in the management plans of at least 21 of the 70 schools in which the S.C.A. unexpectedly found asbestos over the past three years.

The report concluded that the district’s Asbestos Task Force had “deliberately sacrificed accuracy and quality control and, at least in some instances, fabricated results ostensibly in order to ‘complete’ the reports by the deadline of May 9, 1989.’'

Much of the report criticized the work of Enviro-Safe, a local firm with no consulting experience, which was hired at a cost of $1.4 million to train district workers to conduct inspections and write management plans. The report said the selection of Enviro-Safe may have been “tainted by fraud and serious conflicts of interest.’'

A lawyer for the firm has denied the allegations and has defended the quality of its work.

Federal Probes Under Way

Since the report’s release, all 53 members of the Asbestos Task Force have been reassigned to other duties.

The local U.S. Attorney’s office, the local offices of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and city officials have also launched investigations to determine if fraud or any other crime was committed.

This is not the first time the district’s asbestos program has been found faulty, according to the E.P.A. In March, the district was fined $50,000 for other violations of AHERA, said Richard Cahill, a spokesman for the agency.

Depending on the findings of the E.P.A. investigation, the district could be fined for other AHERA violations, said Sanda Howland of the E.P.A.'s pesticides and toxic-substances division.

The current situation in the New York schools “appears to be unique, because of the alleged fraudulent activities,’' Ms. Howland said.

“This hasn’t happened in other parts of the country,’' she said.

Risk Exaggerated?

Under the 1986 asbestos law, all schools in the country were required to inspect for asbestos and submit management plans to state authorities by May 1988, unless they requested a deferral until May 1989. Educators were required to begin implementing the management plans by July 9, 1989, and to reinspect their schools for any changes in the condition of their asbestos-containing material within three years of that date.

The E.P.A. estimates that at least 98 percent of schools nationwide have complied with the law.

A fire-resistant, fibrous silicate mineral once commonly used in building products, asbestos has been linked to lung cancer and other respiratory diseases.

But some scientists say the threat has been vastly overstated.

A 1990 study, for example, concluded that the type of asbestos fiber most often found in schools does not pose a health hazard to students and staff members. It argued that inadequate scientific research and misguided regulations had led to an “asbestos panic.’' (See Education Week, Jan. 24 and Jan. 31, 1990.)

The E.P.A. recommends that schools make in-place management of asbestos, rather than its removal, the “cornerstone’’ of asbestos control. (See Education Week, Sept. 26, 1990.)

$30 Million Housecleaning

Although New York City officials are concerned about the possibility of E.P.A. fines, their immediate attention has focused on fulfilling a promise made by Mayor Dinkins not to reopen any school or classroom until it has been declared free of friable, or crumbling, asbestos.

The inspections and abatements will cost an estimated $30 million.

For the past month, “Operation Clean House,’' which is being run by the School Construction Authority along with other city agencies, has been plagued by a slow start-up and intense public scrutiny.

It took until the last week of August, for example, for city officials to hire enough inspectors to meet their goal of fielding 100 inspection teams with two to three workers each.

At the same time, there have been conflicting views about the quality and progress of the inspections and asbestos-removal work.

Neill Rosenfeld, a spokesman for the United Federation of Teachers, the local affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, said the union has had confidence in the work done by the construction authority to date.

“There seems to be a sincere commitment on the part of the city to get things right this time,’' said Mr. Rosenfeld. “It’s a clean agency. They know what they’re doing.’'

‘Zero Credibility’

In contrast, parents, principals, and community-district officials have complained that the process has not moved quickly enough. They also say they have not received enough information about the teams’ findings.

At an emotional meeting at P.S. 142 in lower Manhattan late last month--which was slated to be held in the school auditorium but had to be moved to the cafeteria due to asbestos work--parents demanded action.

“I think if we have to boycott all the schools at the beginning of the year, I have all the parents in this school to back me up and boycott it,’' said one participant, Elizabeth Valdez.

At the same meeting, the board of Community District 1 passed a resolution to initiate legal action against the citywide board of education over the matter.

William Ubinas, the district’s superintendent, said the central board and the construction agency have “not given me any intelligent information that I can tell a parent.’'

The meeting was held before the decision was made to postpone the start of school.

Some have also raised questions about the quality of the new asbestos inspections.

The district has “zero credibility,’' said Jon Moscow, the executive director of the Parents Coalition for Education in New York City. “When they say our schools are safe, the parents aren’t going to believe them.’'

“I am positive that the day after this process is done, someone is going to go into a school and find asbestos,’' Mr. Moscow said.

Robert Terte, the spokesman for the central board, said steps are being taken to assure accuracy in the inspections.

About 10 percent of the samples taken from buildings will be analyzed by two separate laboratories, he said, and the inspector general’s office of the construction authority is planning to audit the program once it is completed.

‘Not an Isolated Situation’

Although the sheer scope and other aspects of the New York City situation may set it apart, the district’s experience highlights the problem of quality control that has bedeviled school-asbestos projects nationwide.

“New York is not an isolated situation,’' said Scott Nemanich, a Chicago-based lawyer who has represented 80 districts in four states that have sued asbestos manufacturers and contractors over shoddy work.

Many of the consultants hired by districts to do their asbestos work apparently lacked the training and experience to do a proper job.

More than a third of all schools complying with the 1986 asbestos law conducted “deficient’’ or “seriously deficient’’ inspections, and 82 percent had at least one asbestos containing material that went unidentified in the first inspection, according to an E.P.A. study released in 1991. (See Education Week, Sept. 18, 1991.)

That same year, the agency also warned about 1,300 school districts nationwide that they might have violated the law because they hired a national consulting firm that did substandard work.

As of last June, the E.P.A. had filed 150 civil administrative complaints against asbestos contractors. Currently, half of the cases have been settled, or the companies have complied with the law.

Most of the big-city school officials interviewed in the past two weeks said they were confident their own districts have avoided the problems that have plagued New York City’s asbestos program.

“We don’t have a big asbestos problem,’' said a spokesman for the Philadelphia district, which inspected its 256 schools before the AHERA deadline. “In New York, they moved too slowly.’'

But the New York debacle has spurred some school districts elsewhere to look at their asbestos contractors’ work with new concern.

While it is unlikely that school districts would say that their asbestos-control plans are substandard, some educators say districts are worried.

“Lots of districts are double-checking and pulling out their management plans,’' said Laurie Wesley, the chief legislative counsel for the National School Boards Association.

“They are going to be more on the lookout from now on.’'

A version of this article appeared in the September 08, 1993 edition of Education Week as Asbestos Debacle Delays the Start of School in N.Y.C.


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