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?

Final air tests done at the school on November 13 came back showing low levels of asbestos fibers, well under the 70-fiber limit. But rather than take five air samples, which is the industry standard, records indicate that EnHealth did only two indoor tests -- one in the "center" of Building No. 2 and the other in the "east center." Strangely, none of the affected classrooms seems ever to have been retested.

"It sounds like an ugly picture," says Mike Rothenberg, an independent, certified asbestos consultant based in St. Petersburg, who adds that the prudent thing would have been to "shut the building down" altogether and to evacuate the students. "When you're messing with asbestos and children, it only makes sense to take the highest road you can take. You're hard-pressed to justify what they did. I mean, you look to the school board to be a protector."

Equally questionable was the way the incident was recorded in school board files. On October 12, 1999, New Times requested from the school board a complete copy of EnHealth's report on the incident. When the report was released, it included a letter written by EnHealth president James Litrides dated the day after the New Times information request. Litrides claimed in the letter that he'd learned of several inaccuracies in EnHealth's original report on the November 4 incident. Litrides explained that the introduction to the original report had now been rewritten and corrected. The new introduction was essentially the same as the original -- except that all references to school board maintenance personnel handling ACM were deleted.

Joe Forkan

School board construction project manager Rodney Williams says there is still confusion about exactly who caused the asbestos episode. He says that both maintenance personnel and Decon workers were in the building at the time and "nobody is really sure who did what." Even EnHealth, in both the original and altered reports, states that Decon was in Building No. 2 on November 4, removing the countertops. Yet Decon's own field reports include no mention of Decon workers being in Building No. 2 on November 4. Instead the field reports show that Decon was doing unrelated work at the school's gymnasium on the other side of campus on November 5. The countertops, according to Decon, weren't removed until November 13. Other than foreman Thompson, who said he didn't remember the details of the November job, Decon and EnHealth officials, including Litrides, refused to clarify the inconsistencies and contradictions in the report.

School board officials also declined to explain the matter. All asbestos in Broward's public schools ultimately falls under the responsibility of environmental coordinator Louis Gonzalez. Gonzalez's position is mandated by the federal government, and he is charged with making sure that the school board follows all environmental laws. Working closely with Gonzalez on asbestos issues regarding Deerfield Middle has been Israel Rodriguez-Soto, a school board construction manager. Under Gonzalez is Alan Black, a site manager who supervises asbestos field operations for the school board. It's Black's job to coordinate the work of EnHealth, Decon, and other asbestos contractors. Millions of dollars have been spent complying with asbestos regulations at the school board -- EnHealth and Decon have made more than $80,000 between them at Deerfield Middle and that amount is rising on a weekly basis. While there is no evidence of corruption, the business of asbestos removal in the school district has nepotistic elements. The EnHealth employee who handled the November 4 incident is Dan Norton. Dan Norton is the brother of Roy Norton, a former asbestos supervisor for the school board who is currently employed as a school board maintenance manager. A third brother, Lee Norton, works on the school board custodial staff. In addition to this familial knot, the school board's Black is a former employee of Decon, the board's favored asbestos abatement contractor. Both Black and Dan Norton refused comment.

All decisions regarding asbestos at Deerfield Middle were made outside the purview of elected school board members. Board member Stephanie Kraft says staffers have said very little about the Deerfield Middle asbestos situation and have given the board the impression that it isn't serious and is "under control." Board member Bob Parks, whose district includes Deerfield Middle, didn't return phone messages from New Times.

The November 4 episode provides a prelude to the ensuing battle over asbestos between the board's construction department and Pass International. It was Pass' duty to demolish Building No. 2 after students were moved out of it in February. But before any building is demolished, everything in it containing 1 percent or more of asbestos -- which is the government limit -- must be properly removed. The school board construction staff, led by Gonzalez, assured Pass that the building was free of asbestos material and ready to be torn down.

Gonzalez was wrong.

During the '80s the EPA mandated that every public school in the country have an asbestos management plan. The plans would document where ACM was located in the school, and would include records of all asbestos removal and anything else that was pertinent to child safety. In addition, school boards are required to reinspect each school every three years to make sure that no ACM has been overlooked or is crumbling and possibly contaminating the school.

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