Asbestos alert prompts changes in removal
By Jason Rowe
VERNON - The state Department of Public Health will schedule an inspection of asbestos removal practices in town after being notified that asbestos floor tiles were being improperly stored.
And the school system will immediately put into place checks and balances to ensure state and federal laws are being followed in the process.
A Fairfield County resident visiting his childhood school, Lake Street School, notified local and state officials this week that something wasn't right at the school.
Frederick Hesse of Brookfield said he was showing his former elementary school to his wife and four children on Sunday when he and his children spotted a red container adjacent to the school building.
A door to the container was slightly ajar and when he and his kids opened it they saw a number of bags labeled as containing asbestos.
Hesse, an internal medicine physician, said he was surprised that asbestos - a hazardous material known to cause certain types of cancers - would be left in an unlocked and unmarked container on school grounds.
And he said his concerns over the handling of asbestos grew when he spotted a similar setup on the grounds of the Vernon Center Middle School, where one tractor-trailer container was locked and labeled, but another was left open, much like the one at Lake Street school.
Given that these containers were not secured, Hesse said, it would be possible for a child to enter the containers and come into contact with the hazardous material.
As a result, Hesse said, the school system and its contractors could be in violation of state health regulations.
Hesse said he contacted the Police Department on Sunday to notify them of the situation and spoke to school officials on Monday.
"I just want to know that the contractor is being held accountable," said Hesse, who attended Lake Street School in the 1960s and graduated from Rockville High School in 1975.
Asbestos floor tiles are being removed from schools as part of the $68.3 million school renovation project approved by voters in March 2005.
In addition to Lake Street School and the middle school, asbestos floor tiles are being removed at Skinner Road School during the summer vacation.
During the removal, which began June 29, the three schools are off-limits to anyone except people working on the project.
Parents needing to talk to school officials have been asked to contact central office.
Arthur Poole, school director of business and finance, said a contractor's oversight left the container at Lake Street School unlocked and unlabeled.
Poole said it was unlikely that the unlocked container at the middle school was housing asbestos materials.
School officials spoke with the contractor, Baystate Contracting Services Inc. of Springfield, and the problem has been corrected, Poole said.
As of this morning, the container at Lake Street School was labeled as containing asbestos.
And the school system has developed a system of three checks and balances to ensure that the violation isn't repeated, Poole said.
Each day, a representative of Baystate Contracting Services, the school system's consulting hygienist, and the school system's building and maintaence supervisors will inspect the containers to make sure they are in compliance, Poole said.
The school system has contracted with Baystate to also do asbestos abatement at Maple Street and Center Road schools next summer as part of a $783,000 contract, Poole said.
"We are very concerned about this and we have taken strong action, right up to the president of the company," Poole said. "We're very confident it won't happen again."
State regulations require that discarded asbestos materials be left in a leak-tight, labeled container, said Ronald Skomro who works in the state Department of Public Health asbestos program.
Skomro said today the department is aware of the concerns in Vernon and will visit the site in the coming days.
The state Health Department will then decide if any fines or corrective action is appropriate, Skomro said.
By law, state officials are to be made aware of any significant asbestos abatement projects and inspectors try to visit as many job sites as possible.
But because the state often oversees roughly 4,000 abatement projects in a given year, visiting each site can be next to impossible, Skomro said.
Depending on the violation, Skomro said, fines could be as high as $10,000 per infraction.
Poole said any fines levied against the Vernon school project would be paid by Baystate Contracting Services.
This is not the first time Baystate has been in trouble over its asbestos-handling practices.
In February, the company was fined $58,000 for asbestos violations at four sites in the Springfield and Holyoke, Mass., area, according to the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection.
While the dangers of exposure might not be immediate, Hesse said, negative effects of cancer-causing materials take a long time to manifest.
Often times, the consequences of exposure are not known until 20 to 25 years after the person has been exposed.
"That would be true of anything that causes cancer," said Hesse, who noted that strict regulations on asbestos have been placed on factors and other work environments. "We just haven't come to that point with schools."
In Brookfield, where Hesse now lives, the local school system has been involved in an arduous effort to rid its buildings of the hazardous material.
In spring 2002, schools were closed for several weeks because elevated levels of asbestos were found.
That summer, roughly $4 million was spent to rid the schools of the asbestos, but the problems continued.
And last summer, a child from Bethel found his way into an unmarked and unlocked container of asbestos during a Little League game on one of Brookfield's school grounds, Hesse said.
"Once you begin thinking of it, you can't stop, you become hyper aware of it," Hesse said.
©Journal Inquirer 2006