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?

In 1988 the Broward school board hired consultants to inspect every school in the district for asbestos-containing material. A surprisingly small amount of ACM was found in the 1959-built Deerfield Middle; just flooring tile, those countertops, and other odds and ends. In the past year, officials have learned that the plan was missing thousands of square feet of asbestos-containing cement and ceiling tile. School board officials shouldn't be surprised by this oversight: The management plan itself states that the board "recognizes" the plan is "incomplete." The same goes for other schools in the district, including Deerfield Beach High School. In the Deerfield High plan, there are also about a dozen instances of ACM mysteriously disappearing between inspections, with no record indicating what happened to it.

In its lawsuit Pass is demanding that the school board reinspect not only the Deerfield Beach schools but every public school in Broward. The suit also demands that the board complete all management plans in the district. Doing that will prevent "exposure of students and faculty to previously undiscovered and unreported asbestos," according to the lawsuit. Pass officials claim they aren't looking to profit from the lawsuit but instead just want to be compensated for delays. While school construction officials won't comment publicly on the Pass lawsuit, a department insider says it's the board's position that Pass has done a poor job from the beginning and is using the asbestos issue as a way to recoup losses and get out of the contract.

Whatever the roots of the conflict might be, it was Pass' environmental manager, Jorge Diaz, who uncovered the systemic problems at Deerfield Middle. Diaz is a former certified asbestos management planner who has conducted more than 1000 inspections. Diaz says he became suspicious during the planning stages of demolishing Building No. 2, when board staff refused to sign a required form stating that the board was aware of all federal regulations and its own responsibilities and was accepting them. The board instead insisted that Pass take responsibility for all asbestos in the building, Diaz says. The school board also took months to give Pass the school's management plan, and the first plan that the school board provided turned out to be the one for Deerfield Beach High School, says Diaz. "Warning signs were just firing off," Diaz says.

On April 5, Pass was informed in writing by board representatives that there was no federally regulated ACM in Building No. 2 and that it was ready to be demolished. Pass officials, now suspicious, had an asbestos inspection done that found 6420 square feet of cement panels with asbestos inside the building above the school's drop tile ceilings. Pass notified the school board that the cement was made of up to 50 percent asbestos. Faced with this evidence, the school board agreed to have the asbestos removed prior to demolition.

On May 20, according to county records, EnHealth president Litrides called the county's Department of Planning and Environmental Protection (DPEP) and asked if the asbestos-laden cement could be removed without filing federal notification forms. Precisely why EnHealth wanted to forego the notification, which is required by law, is unknown. The Clean Air Act dictates that any time more than 160 square feet of ACM is going to be broken and removed, the government must be notified at least ten days in advance. With 6420 square feet of ACM, which was to be broken into bits, notification was clearly required. But county environmental engineer Bill Hahne told Litrides to go ahead and remove the ACM without notification.

It's a strange situation: The school board was told by a county environmental official that it could, in effect, break a federal law. How could this happen? Records show that Hahne, who has handled asbestos issues for the county on and off for more than a decade, was misinterpreting federal regulations.

Hahne says he has developed a formula to determine how many "ragged edges" will result from breaking cement. Then, he says, "you have to round up all those ragged edges" and total them, which renders, in Hahne's judgment, the amount of dust that results. Hahne says his formula shows that less than one square foot of ragged edges would result from breaking up 6420 square feet of cement. When asked to explain his formula, Hahne said he would supply it, but instead Hahne's boss, Jarrett Mack, intervened and admitted that Hahne's interpretation of federal regulations was wrong. The EPA said so in a letter to DPEP. "This is an incorrect interpretation of the regulation," wrote EPA air enforcement chief Dick Dubose. Adds Mack: "I believe [Hahne] came up with those numbers incorrectly, and that is not the way we regulate asbestos today."

Without notifying the government, Decon, the school board's contractor, removed the asbestos-laden cement panels at Building No. 2 on May 27, prompting the school board once again to demand that Pass demolish the building. But during a walk-through of the building, Pass officials saw the results of Decon's work: a mess. In areas that should have been meticulously cleaned during a professional asbestos abatement, there were broken pieces of the asbestos-laden cement strewn about inside and outside the building. Piles of dust-covered trash were also left behind. When Pass notified the school board of the mess and asked that it be cleaned up prior to demolition, the school board downplayed the incident and continued to demand that Pass demolish the building. That's when Diaz complained to the county, prompting county environmental inspector Art Pennetta to visit the building, whereupon he found pieces of ACM. In addition to the ACM, Pennetta noted "debris consisting of desk drawers, papers, old textbooks, broken furniture… and several drop ceiling panels which were wet and moldy," according to county reports, which also indicate that plastic and filters used during the asbestos abatement were left behind.

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