This School May Cause Cancer

The stalled reconstruction of Deerfield Middle School has littered the campus with a carcinogen. So why are students still there?

Bordered by plywood and chainlink fences and occupied by a large trailer, the heart of the Deerfield Beach Middle School campus might seem like a construction site. But it's really a destructionsite. While the school is packed with 1500 seventh and eighth graders, it's undergoing what the School Board of Broward County, facing critical overcrowding throughout the district, calls a "phase replacement" -- it's being demolished and rebuilt while students attend the school.

That was the plan, anyway. Instead the site is eerily silent these days, a dead zone. Buildings that were supposed to be torn down months ago still stand, empty. Two years after the contract was signed, nothing much has yet been renovated. The project is some 275 days behind schedule and hundreds of thousands of dollars over budget.

A clue to the cause of the costly inactivity can be found on the doors of Building No. 2, a large 35-room building that is now abandoned and slated for flattening. On those locked doors are the ripped remnants of cardboard "DANGER" signs. Before the signs mysteriously disappeared, they'd warned of asbestos contamination.

"CANCER AND LUNG DISEASE HAZARD," the signs had cautioned, "RESPIRATORS AND PROTECTIVE CLOTHING ARE REQUIRED."

Though the signs were gone, the carcinogen remained. It was in crumbling ceiling tiles and broken chips of cement. It was in the dust in the dark building, scattered over piles of trash, furniture, and old text books. It was in the building's dank air. Students weren't allowed to go into the building, but kids, of course, have a way of popping up in places they aren't supposed to be. And there were occupied buildings right next to the contaminated building. Students sometimes walk by the building, right past the doors where the signs had once been. There's no hard evidence that any child has broken into the building since contamination. But one chainlink fence is bent down from someone climbing on it.

Despite the potential health hazard in the school building, it sat contaminated for months because the school board refused to clean it up. By law all asbestos-containing material -- or ACM -- must be removed to protect the area from a potentially harmful dust cloud when the building is leveled. Air tests must also prove that the building is safe before demolition begins. Instead of cleaning the building, school board staff disputed tests showing high levels of asbestos in the air of the building and in ceiling tiles littering the floor. The staff disregarded the findings until the federal Environmental Protection Agency independently proved early this month that the building was, in fact, contaminated with crumbling ACM.

The building's interior wasn't the only concern; outside, broken pieces of asbestos-laden cement littered the schoolyard, left behind after an asbestos abatement in May. That discovery led the county to charge the board with breaking federal environmental laws. The county also cited an asbestos contractor hired by the school board, Decon Environmental and Engineering, with a civil violation.

The asbestos problems don't stop there. The construction company that won the $8.5 million Deerfield Middle contract, Pass International, is claiming that the school board broke numerous Clean Air Act laws and that the board's asbestos management plans -- which are essential for protecting students from asbestos dust -- are grossly inadequate. Pass also asserts in court filings that chunks of asbestos-laden cement still litter school grounds. Early this month a walk on the school site revealed thin pieces of white cement full of fibers, a possible indication of asbestos, outside Building No. 6, which is also due to be demolished. During a visit to the construction site, two students in ten minutes were seen walking through the off-limits area. They shouldn't have been there but apparently gained access by simply walking out the doors of nearby occupied buildings.

County health officials deny even the possibility that ACM could still be littering school grounds.

"That just can't be," says Jarrett Mack, the supervisor of the county's Air Quality Division. "We've been out there so many times. There can't be any asbestos out there."

Russell Thompson, Decon's foreman, also says it's impossible. "Did you have it tested?" he asks. When told no, Thompson says, "Then how the hell do you know it's asbestos?"

So a sample of the suspicious material -- which was picked up right off the school ground -- was tested at Advanced Industrial Hygiene Services (AIHS) in Miami, the same lab often used by the school board itself. The tests concluded that the sample contained 15 percent asbestos, which means it is considered potentially hazardous and falls under federal regulations.

Other pieces of ACM could be found scattered about Building No. 6 at Deerfield Middle, some of them on ledges around the building, others on the sidewalk and grass. While the cement chips are unlikely actually to harm anyone (it's in the open air and doesn't crumble very easily), they represent pieces of a larger puzzle that reveals numerous asbestos-related violations at Deerfield Middle. A New Times investigation has found that the school board has repeatedly violated EPA rules and that the board's own asbestos management plans -- key to protecting children from asbestos exposure -- are often terribly incomplete. County environmental officials are also at fault, misinterpreting federal regulations and inadvertently encouraging the school board to break at least one law. In the case of Deerfield Middle, the school board somehow overlooked thousands of square feet of asbestos-containing material. What that means is that students, teachers, maintenance personnel, and school board contractors could have been exposed to asbestos dust over the years and nobody would have known.

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